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Science to Guilty Parents: Stop Stressing Out About Spending ‘Quality Time’ With Your Kids

If there’s one word that defines the lives of working parents it’s probably ‘guilt.’ Surveys show that at least half of working mothers and fathers say they’re stressed out about work-life balance and how much time they spend with their families.

But you probably didn’t need science to tell you that. If you want to confirm the supercharged anxieties of today’s busy parents, all you need to do is witness the flurry of enrichment activities and elaborate projects many shoehorn into their lives out of concern that they’re somehow failing to give their kids the best start in life.

Some of that is just the age-old price of parental love – raising kids sometimes feels like it is as much about terror as it is about joy – but another part of this comes down to the modern American cult of ‘quality time.’ Don’t kids need long stretches of meaningful connection with their parents? Aren’t we all so rushed that we struggle to give them adequate attention? These are the types of questions that plague today’s working parents in particular.

But writing on Quartz recently Lila MacLellan has an important message for all the guilt-ridden parents out there stressed out about family time: you really need to chill out. Science shows most of you probably already have at least this aspect of family life nailed.

Quantity: you need less than you think

In our darker moments, we all suspect kids need oodles of time with mom and dad to thrive, far more than we can manage to give them with our hectic modern lives. Not so, replies MacLellan (and science). In fact, a stack of studies shows that more time with mom and dad makes close to no difference, she writes: 

… in 2015, University of Toronto sociologist Melissa Milkie published a study showing that the amount of time children aged 3 to 11 spent with parents had no measurable impact on their emotional well-being, behavior, or academic success.

Although Milkie’s research– a large-scale, longitudinal study–didn’t dispute the positive and necessary benefits of sharing meals or one-to-one time, it did find that the quantity of time parents spent with their little ones mattered little. “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,” Milkie told the Washington Post. [The exception is adolescent delinquency which appears to be influenced by amount of time spent with mom.]

Quality: you’re already fine

OK sure, you might respond, maybe I don’t need to devote long, uninterrupted hours to my offspring for them to do alright, but certainly quality matters. If I’ve only got a little time with them, I have to really make it count, right?

That’s the sort of thinking that drives the flurry of activity that is exhausting America’s families (and, some would argue, holding back the development of their kids) but it too is based on a faulty understanding of the science, according to MacLellan. When researchers say “quality time” they don’t mean mommy-toddler music classes or elaborate craft projects. They mean setting the table for dinner and bickering over who will walk the dog.

She cites a 2007 UCLA study that found “the quiet, in-between moments of family life did as much of the real work of family bonding as any fabricated family time.” MacLellan goes on to quote the researchers: “Everyday activities (like household chores or running errands) may afford families quality moments, unplanned, unstructured instances of social interaction that serve the important relationship-building functions that parents seek from ‘quality time’.”

If you’re still skeptical, check out the complete article for a deeper dive into the exact sort of everyday interactions that the researchers claim were more than adequate to allow kids to feel nurtured (the example MacLellan unpacks at length takes place while waiting at a car wash, to give you some idea).

Whether or not you opt to dig further into the science, the takeaway is clear — most parents these days are far too stressed about “quality time” and it’s making both them and their kids less happy. Relax, you’ve got this one handled already.

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