Why Are You Spending More Time With Your Kids?

An exceptionally neat new working paper points out that parents’ time spent with kids has increased hugely since the early 1990’s, particularly among highly educated parents.

This is a remarkable fact, and surprising; these are the same parents whose value of time (their wage rate) has increased relative to that of all parents, as, unsurprisingly, have their hours working for pay (since we know that labor supply responds to wage rates). They thus have less non-work time available and are spending even more of it with their kids. Why the surprising result?

The authors go through and demolish a large number of explanations and offer their own: that the demand for places at top-notch colleges has increased (as the number of high-school grads has grown), while the supply of places at the Harvards, Amhersts, and yes, even the UT-Austins has changed little. This increased relative demand has provided growing incentives for kids to distinguish themselves — and for their parents to spend time helping them do so. One nice test of the theory makes the same comparison — highly educated versus less-educated over time — for Canada, where there appears to be less gradation in perceived quality across universities than here. In the North, unlike here, there has been no divergence in time spent with kids by parents with differing educational attainment.


Maybe at least part of the explanation is that it has become
much easier in many jobs (especially jobs requiring high-level education) to work from home? This blurs the distinction between work and leisure time and has enabled parents to stay home for longer hours with their kids while being able to do some work, at least part of the time


Maybe these parents simply enjoy spending time with their kids and find that the emotional rewards outweigh the potential economic rewards of more work.


Who is surprised? Not me. Parents now spend less time having their "own" lives, instead consumed with their kids--either in a helicopter way or a disturbing my-kid-is-my-friend way. Also, parents spend less time together--alone. And that's why marriages end.


The utility of marginal wages declines as total income increases. The utility of time spent with kids wins the competition at higher incomes. In other words, if I can assure myself of a comfortable income, more money doesn't matter that much. Now I can do other things that make me happy.

Another aspect may be time-horizon. People who are highly educated and tend to be successful in careers may be more future-oriented. Low-income, less-educated people may tend to be more fixated on themselves and the here and now.

Peripetatic Entrepreneur

Nice to know that I'm not the only one terrified by the prospect of ones kids competing directly against a cohort from the entire planet. Things were easier for us in the 80's and 90's ...


I wish these parents would knock it off. Their adult offspring (or, as the parents put it, their "children") get to college completely unable to take care of themselves. Professors are not babysitters; it is not our job to coddle your adult offspring. Please, parents, let your children and teens play outside and walk down the street unaccompanied. Let them have jobs and stop teaching them that they deserve everything they desire by paying for their cars, their gasoline, and their insurance. Let them develop a sense of independence. Otherwise, when they are 18, just keep them in high school where you must secretly want them anyway.

Who wants a to hire a Harvard grad if that grad can't even pick out socks for the day without consulting mommy first?

Another difference between Canada and the US concerning college: Canadian students do not think they deserve As just for showing up, they do not think that professors should hold their hands or offer them special treatment. Americans students, are the complete opposite and the nation will suffer one day as a result.


Doug B

From the working paper:

"A fourth possible explanation may be that childcare is best classified as leisure because it generates high enjoyment. We show that surveys of enjoyment of basic childcare in 1985 and in the mid-2000s do not support this notion."

Although parents may claim that they don't enjoy childcare, they feel like they are "supposed to" enjoy it, therefore they do more of it, inspite of the fact that they don't enjoy it?

Alternatively, I would suggest what I would call the "Huxtable Effect". Parents raising kids these days were, in all likelihood, viewers of "The Cosby Show", which ran from 1984-92 (or possibly "Family Ties" or other family-based sitcoms of the era). Almost all of the action on those shows happened in the home, so despite the fact that Cliff was a doctor and Claire was a lawyer, we all grew up thinking that in the ideal home, Mom and Dad were around almost all of the time. Having grown up ourselves in homes where either a) parents were divorced, or b) Dad worked all of the time, we decided that we were going to be less like our own parents and more like the Huxtables.



maybe it's because babysitters and nannies (which seem to be disproportionately used by more highly educated/higher income parents) are so expensive that people can only afford them for the bare minimum of time!

Imad Qureshi

Very interesting. But I like the first comment from "oz" that many people work frequently from home. I personally do that a lot. As the paper explained I have planned to train my kid the same (I hope I do as planned) way. For example making him improve vocabulary right when he is 6 or 7 so by the time he gives SAT, he wouldn't run into problems like I did when I gave my GRE.


I'd like to see (somewhat humorously, but not entirely) how this correlates with data on the sex lives of married (and unmarried) parents and, to Andrea's (#3) point, divorce rates among couples with children. It would also be interesting to measure if kids are, in general, any better off for all this parental attention - personally I think that boundaries and independence, even (and especially) for children, are more important than many modern parents recognize.


I think the researchers' conclusions about parental motives are a bit unfair.

My husband (49-year-old university pofessor) and I (47-year-old writer/editor at a research institution) have 4 kids - 16, 13, 8 & 4 and both work full time (with some flexibility)

We spend LOTS of time with our kids. Why? One, we derive enormous pleasure from them and also because neither of us ever saw much of our own parents. Both of our sets of parents were very much the 1950s-60s suburban dream type - who supervised and interacted with their children very little. They lived in fully adult worlds. Both of my parents spent far more time with their own parents (based on their own descriptions of their childhood) than they spent with us. My father was always with his father -- playing sports and spending time together. We never saw our father. He commuted to Manhattan by train every day and was gone from 7 in the morning until 8 at night. We never had dinner with him, he never came to a single event of ours. I am not being critical - I adored my father - and my mom was terrific. But I have to say I do regret that I didn't know them better.

Perhaps many of today's parents spend more time with their children because they feel the loss of a stronger connection to their own parents. I am with adults all day long -- hanging out with my kids in the evenings and weekends (board games, bike rides, swimming, reading aloud). I am out of the house 40+ hours a week --how much adult time do I need?



My kid is only five but I do more stuff with him because it's a cheap way to socialize. Golf, softball leagues, etc are so structured and expensive.

It's easy to ride with him to the park and hang out with the other parents while our kids play together.

Juan H.

Parents are working more and spending more time with their kids: Sounds like a no brainer: it's a guilt-driven correlation.. The more I spend in the office, the more guilty I feel and the more I will try to compensate by "spending time with the kids" instead of on me..The explanation of competitive admissions to college sounds fway way ar fetched to me.

jake d.

Well, my children are small (4 and 5) so it seems natural that I would spend time with them. Also, they are boys, so that comes naturally, too. However, when I look back, my father spend ALMOST NO time with me. So if these increases are from 0% of time spent to 10 or 15% of time spent, then that's OK. Another reason: I want to make sure I help my boys become strong and happy people and most of the times first hand explanation and direct example are the best way to go. Also: I know I am preparing for the onslaught of attention seeking distractions thay will face in a little while: if I don't build strong relationship with them now - they're gone! Finally, I must have heard this a million times in the last 20 years: Children want your time - not your money!


@Mattk: Your suggestion does not even attempt to explain why the amount of time spend with kids has *changed* in the last 15-20 years


Spending time with my kids has always been a top priority (although I haven't been a parent for very long), despite the increasing wages I get from work. I try to expose my son to the diverse things that adults do: chores, play, repairing the house, spending time with other adults. We get plenty of one-on-one time, but he gets at least as much value from watching me do my thing as he does doing things with me.


Of course the answer to the question 'Why do we spend more time with our kids?' is multi-faceted. If the answer is limited to this -- To set them up for the competitive, dog-eat-dog, limited-resources, more-kids-to-fewer-Ivy-League-spots, problematic world (we adults helped?) set up for them -- then we are setting ourselves up for a ginormous (a word the kids use that I've come to like) let down. Anything can happen to a child after s/he heads out the door. Anything.

We spend a huge! amount of time with our sons (we both work full-time, with advanced degrees). Whether it's coaching, team-managing, in-class at school, hosting their buddies at our house ('play dates'), taking the boys on vacation-type trips, taking them biking or hiking, commuting to-and-from organized activities (whether we stay to watch), and more-recently, both of us working more 'from home' ... we are actively involved with the day-to-day lives of our sons. It just worked out that way. We've no close family around to help.

This was *not* the way it was for either of us while growing up. So, maybe we see this as an opportunity? It is -- in no way -- 'easy' to be together a lot with one's offspring. But, we had them -- it's our responsibility -- to raise them. We could have had more children, but as anyone who is around youngsters knows all-too-well, each one takes a boatload of time. The math is simple: Two (of us) parents to 'however many' kids are living with the two parents. Here's the fire-starter (for many of you gentle readers): It is simply irresponsible to have several children unless you have several adults around the house to do the 'man-to-man' -- or at least a reasonable zone -- defense.

I once commented to a friend that "we effectively have no social life." The reply was quick: "You are wrong; it is just that your kids are a central part of your social life." Turns out, my friend was right. After all, it's a short time they're around home with us, right?



Matt k, amen to that!

It's a rational decision in that parents are realizing the opportunity cost of not spending time with your kids far outweigh whatever financial gains you may achieve by working 80-100 hour weeks.

This is especially true in the current environment; I'd be surprised if this trend does not continue.


"I wish these parents would knock it off. "

Lisa, what's wrong with spending time with your kids? Should we assume every parent who spends an atypically large amount of time with their kids is coddling them, as you say? Sounds like you're jumping to conclusions to me. Furthermore, no degree of experience you may have had dealing with American students can justify your prejudices. There are plenty of hard-working, self-sufficient American students, just as there are spoiled or coddled ones.

In short: please give people the benefit of the doubt before casting stereotypes into the wind.