In 2015, The New York Times wrote an article on the reality of working parenthood in America.
It wasn’t all that uplifting. Using 30-somethings Aimee and Jakub as paragons of full-time parents-and-employees, the article touched on two clear cultural shifts:
- Working mothers are far more common than they have ever been (accounting for 63% of two-parent homes).
- Households with two full-time working parents are dramatically more prevalent. In fact, a 2015 Pew study put the number of households with two full-time working parents at 46% (of all two-parent homes).
Little surprise, given these numbers, that working parents struggle to make time for family. And that time is important. In a 2012 study of working parents over the last four decades, UC Irvine researcher Judith Treas prefaced her research by spelling out what science has known for decades: “The time parents spend with children is regarded as critical for positive cognitive, behavioral, and academic outcomes.”
What she found was that while time spent with kids has, in some measure, increased, there’s still a question about quantity vs. quality. Which is more important?
According to Sociologist Melissa Milkie of the University of Toronto: “I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes. . . . nada. Zippo.” She goes on to point out that, according to at least one study, heaps of parental attention between the ages of 3 and 11 seemed to make very little difference to children’s development.
Was that because quantity trumped quality? It’s unclear. But what is clear is that there is a link between quality time and positive outcomes for kids. Milkie stresses this point for parents: Don’t fret about minutes set aside. Fret about what you do with those minutes.
So the more important question becomes: If you’re a working parent, are you spending enough quality time with your kids? And what does that look like?
Let’s start with some cardinal rules:
- Whatever you do, make sure you engage in in-person activities. Don’t assume that a Skype call will substitute for a face-to-face chat. It won’t.
- In fact, make a point to turn off technology when you’re with your child(ren). This is THEIR quality time, not to be interrupted. And yes, they will remember a parent perennially distracted by a smartphone.
- Create activities unique to each child—something that can be done every day. These don’t have to be complicated; a simple book-reading session or game before bed will do. But make sure there is uniqueness to that activity, giving your child an opportunity to bond with you on a deep and intimate level.
- Make and eat meals together. You need to eat anyway, so make a point to involve your children in mealtime. When possible (and appropriate), encourage them to help with the preparation. The resulting ownership of the meal—and the shared experience—will help cement a parent-child bond.
- Identify your child(ren)’s interests and build activities around them. Don’t overthink it, though. If you notice that they love to look at trees or flowers, for example, take them with you on a daily walk and teach them the names of the plants that you see. Let them lead the exploration.
- Encourage them to share their experiences openly—both failures and successes. Some parents do this in place of reading at the end of the day. Instead of picking up a chapter from “The Berenstain Bears,” for instance, set aside 5-10 minutes to share your day with them (the good and the bad) and ask them to do the same. This modeling of openness and sharing in a trusted relationship will teach them to address their own problems without shame and embrace victory with the right measure of pride.
- Ask them (regularly) what activities in their lives are really important to them. Again, these could be as simple as sports practice or going to see a movie. Whatever they articulate, make a point to share it with them (at least one major activity a week). And be sure you put it in your calendar so that it carries as much weight as any other planned event.
“But,” you say, “what if I don’t have time even for those basic activities? I’m just so busy!”
Then I would ask: What’s more important—your family or that work presentation that the world will never see and the office will forget about next week?
No one said parenting (or life) was easy. But you have to know your priorities.
That said, there are ways to ease the burden. As they say, raising a child “takes a village.”
So—lean on friends and family. Not to watch the kids, but to take care of the extraneous to-dos that are less important.
Here are some ideas for lightening your load:
- Do you have a neighbor (or two) who usually drops by the store on the way home? Set up a schedule whereby you swap grocery-shopping duties.
- Do your children’s friends have parents willing to host joint-family dinners? Set up a night for them to host this every other week or so (which you will reciprocate). That way, you don’t have to worry about making dinner and picking up the kids at least once every couple of weeks.
- Do you have a coworker willing to provide extra support on school activity nights? Offer an exchange of some kind so that both of you benefit and you get to leave work early as needed.
- Exercise eating up family time? Convert part of your work commute to biking, walking, or running. Save your previous home time for the fam. (And remember—you don’t need to workout for an hour every day. Fifteen minutes should be enough.)
- Not enough time for chores AND games? Turn chores into games by offering rewards and showing your kids how much fun they can be. Example: Ask your child to dust every surface in the house and give them a time limit. For every piece of furniture dusted within the time limit, they get X M&M’s or Gummy Bears. In sharing the experience, you teach them real responsibility and the value of earned rewards.
- Have to finish up work at home? At the very least, sit in a common area with your kids as you do it. Work for 25 minutes, then pause for 5 minutes to spend time with them. If it’s possible for them to help—even superficially—get them engaged.
If you’re short on ideas, ask yourself the following questions to help craft a meaningful, quality activity:
- What can I do with my child that will further his/her cognitive, physical, or emotional development?
- How can I encourage sharing with my son/daughter to build trust in our relationship?
- How can I encourage his/her interests?
- How can I help with his/her struggles?
As you consider these, remember that no child benefits from “child talk.” Speak to your kids as self-aware, thoughtful human beings and let them express their interests, fears, desires, and opinions without fear of judgment. These will be fodder enough for future activities that you can share together.