It Doesn’t Matter How Much Time Parents Spend With Their Kids

New research shows no link between amount of time spent with children and emotional, behavioral, or academic outcomes

Mom and Daughter
Artiga Photo/Corbis

American mothers spend more time with their kids today than they did in the 1960s, partly due to assumptions that the more time parents and kids spend together, the better. But new research could turn that assumption on its head in a big way—as the Washington Post reports, a new study shows that the amount of time parents spend with kids has “virtually no relationship to how children turn out.”

For the first time ever, researchers have undertaken a large longitudinal study of how parents spend their time and how their kids perform, Brigid Schulte reports. The study used time diaries and survey data to track how accessible mothers were to their children, linking that data to kids’ outcomes in the areas of behavior, emotion and academics. It found that the amount of time spent with kids “did not matter”—and in some cases could even harm children.

Schulte explains that time spent with stressed mothers can actually hurt children. Guilty, anxious moms who struggle to juggle work and childcare were linked to worse outcomes like lower math scores and behavioral problems. But overall, the study’s authors found that time spent with mothers doesn’t really matter—except during adolescence, when an engaged mom can result in less delinquent behavior.

The study flies in the face of the notion that a mother’s one-on-one time with her child is “sacred.” But the study’s authors note that the quality of time spent with kids still matters, even though the results don’t point to a magic number of time kids should be spending with their parents. In fact, notes Schulte, there’s another factor that predicted success more reliably than any amount of time spent with kids—social resources like “income and a mother’s educational level.”

“In an ideal world, this study would alleviate parents’ guilt about the amount of time they spend, and show instead what’s really important for kids,” Melissa Milkie, who co-authored the study, told Schulte. In the meantime, other research is pointing to the potential downsides of overly involved parents—this Wall Street Journal report points to a study that suggests that helicopter parents may increase their kids’ risk of physical inactivity.

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