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.


HH

Recent research has demonstrated quite conclusively that children who spend more time with their parents are far less likely to get into serious drugs and other self-destructive behaviors. Perhaps these educated parents are aware of this and are adjusting their lives somewhat as a result; the prior generation lacked this information.

Dawna

#6 Lisa, I live in a rural area-- few other kids for miles, babysitters in short supply, and school activities 16 miles from home. My husband and I, both with master's degrees, spend a great deal of time with our son, age 5, partly because we think he's cool and partly because we're often the only humans he sees on weekends. We expect him to participate in what we're working on-- he's learning to hang laundry, milk the goats, pick produce and help clean meat carcasses. He also is learning to ride, shoot his bow, paddle a canoe, play fiddle, etc., because these things are part of his parents' lives.

Isn't parenting is supposed to be working together to pass on life/social skills? I would say that most parents are doing just that-- sharing whatever they do as a context for learning. It's fun, and it's important.

Sheila

Is it possible adults spend less time doing home administrative work when they are home and have reallocated this time to childcare? No need to wait in line at the bank, grocery shopping online, all sorts of other shopping online - these things have increased our ability to both spend more time at work and at play. Perhaps parents are spending more of that increased play time with their kids for all the reasons people cite above.

(I admit - I didn't read the whole thing so I didn't see whether they debunked this argument).

Tiffany

Perhaps spending time with their children is the next step for parents to show their sign of affection and love while 15-20 years ago it was more important for parents to work and provide stability for family in times of less abundance. That or investing more time in your progeny who has 1/2 of your genes will ensure that they'll and your genes will succeed in a growing competing world and a society with less children in each family (less opportunities).

alex

funny they don't compare anywhere the total hours spent with kids in US vs Canada, only the difference since the 90s. if i read the result tables correctly, the constant is much higher in canada, meaning that canadians spend more time with their kids, regardless of any other factors.

could it be that canadian parents were already spending the maximum time they could with their kids, while US parents were choosing to do something else? and, therefore, no matter what the college situation is in canada, hours spent with kids won't increase simply because there's none left to allocate?

i also wonder what the number of kids applying to the top schools is relative to total kids. i'd have a hard time believing 5% of people can have such a large effect on total population measures.

another factor that the study forgets is that canadians go to top US schools too. right now, the leader of the opposition, the finance minister and the governor of the central bank, to give just a few salient examples, are all alumni of ivy schools. don't these canadian parents want the same for their kids?

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Mary Gaughan

As someone who had children later in life (35-40), I had plenty of time for "socializing" with adults and I will have time in my 50's for more personal pursuits, but these short years with my kids are the best in my life so far. I have no interest in the Ivy League, I just like to go to the Museum of Science!

I wonder if older parents have more of the big picture view.

Tennessee

Just laughable! As any good student knows, accredited colleges/universities do not differ dramatically in the sort of education that they offer. It's all about cache and brand name--NOT EDUCATIONAL EXCELLENCE.

A poor student will do poorly no matter what school...and a good student witll receive a good education not matter what school.

It seems that parents are really all about the brand name--kind of like parents who cannot bear the thought that their precious child might have to wear--gasp!--off-brand jeans or tennis shoes! Oh, the humanity!!!

I spend time with my son because I love him. I certainly want him to excel. But his excelling will not come because he can make more money with a Harvard degree, but because of the quality of his character...and they don't teach that at Harvard. It's taught in the hours of interaction between fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters.

Let's see, a man of integrity and truth...or a millionaire CEO who has no qualms about robbing thousands of families of needed income so that he can look good to the stockholders by shipping the jobs overseas? I'd rather have a good guy for a son than to have him be the wealthiest man on earth.

A good name is rather to be desired than great riches--Solomon.

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M.P.R.

Am laughing so hard at all the negative rationales popping up in the comments....that the increase in time must be due to economic incentive, or guilt, etc.

I spend time with my kid because....it's fun! It's amazing and refreshing to see the world through the eyes of a child. It gives you energy, hope, and a new perspective. It offers a healthy challenge too - the challenge to have enough patience and mindfulness to become a better teacher, a better mentor. When you feel good about your parenting, it's often because you're being true to yourself.

The untold secret is that, in the end, parents learn far more from their children than their children learn from them.

Tony Fleming

Totally agree with Dawna (#22). Parenting is challenging and fun. Most people do not get from their that combination of challenge, fun and reward. And, it's a different world than when I was a kid in the 60's. My kids have flown since they were kids, a middle class experience today which was much less common even in my upper middle class upbringing. So, our family travels together and we see and share interesting experiences on the road. FUN! I coached soccer. There are WAY more organized sports alternatives for my girls than my sisters ever had. Coaching is (most of the time) FUN! Even schoolwork can be fun. Some of the better books I've read have been from my girls' reading lists. I'm sure many of the other comments here are valid. But, let's double-up on the "fun" idea.

Mattk

@brazzy. I confess to wild speculation, but I believe it is plausible that the current generation of younger parents values family time more than the previous generation, hence the change.

The previous generation was promised domestic bliss through hard-working husbands and stay-at-home wives, and what did they get? The highest divorce rates is U.S. history. Makes perfect sense that their kids would learn from their mistakes.

davey

There can be a vicious cycle involved in spending too much time with kids. If children don't feel comfortable spending time alone, they seem to find comfort only in video screens or highly structured activities with parents. Both tend to be situations in which the child rarely has any need to use imagination or even common sense.

I also wonder about parents who see children as something to "enjoy" for a short period of time as if children were bottles of wine that will eventually go bad. How is this perspective any less self-involved than that of parents who ignore their kids to work on their own careers?

Sanjay

The authors note that time spent with children increased while time spent on housework decreased. Perhaps the causative factor had nothing to do with child-raising but was instead due to housework becoming easier or less time consuming, either as a result of simpler methods of cleaning (e.g. the Swiffer) or a lowering of household standards (e.g. abandoning the concept of daily home-cooked meals).

More likely, college educated parents are simply responding to the orthodoxy of early childhood educators ("read to your children every day"), the logical outcome of Freud's enormous insight that childhood experiences shape adult personality.

Anyway, what's more fun that playing with kids?

Sanjay

hildigunnur

Well, I'm not in the USA and neither can I say I speak for every parent, but for me and my husband the reason for spending a lot of time with our kids is that it's worth more for us to actually know our children than it is for us to get that promotion or raise at work.

They do get to find their own way, have walked alone to and from school since they were 6 years old and definitely get their independence and to find their way around - there's no coddling involved...

Has anybody here heard anyone ever say on his/hers death bed: Oh, I wish I'd spent some more time at the office?

science minded

I used to spend a good deal of time with my daughter because I wanted to., Now, she seems to need the contact. Wants advice on ........ and is intense. Teenagers (at least mine) is different than I was. Their lives seem so much more complex. so being off for 5 weeks- is -- a vacation break-- even if it means I have the time to do my work.

Jane

I think Mary has a point about older parents. We're too tired to go out, we've had real choices (including not to have kids), and maybe when we do decide to have kids, we want to spend as much time as possible with them, better realizing how fleeting the time they are with us is, Increased education also ends to delay childbearing. And delay for some makes childbearing more difficult, and for those folks, perhaps especially appreciated.

jonathan

I read the paper and was impressed. Solid work.

I was bothered only by the fact that it fits so neatly into my basic conceptions of what should be happening - and that's troubling because it's difficult to see how pre-existing bias affects things. The competition for admission to college has been growing and growing and this is a natural outcome.

The paper would really nail this if they had data about how much time was spent with girls versus boys. Since competition for girls' spots is more intense, economic logic says we should see some effect, meaning some more investment of time in girls. How much I don't know, but that would be a neat finding.

Sydha

I simply enjoy my kids.....listen to them and they are the greatest philosophers. Makes one a better person overall.

Gary

Couldn't it just as likely be related to smoking. As educated people learned that their smoking was harmful to their children, they didn't smoke around the children. That same demographic eventually quit smoking or just didn't start, so the few hours a week devoted to smoking could now be devoted to the kids.

Ave

This is pretty fascinating.

I really don't buy the competitive college explanation though. So many studies have come out in the past 20 years that pick apart every developmental age in children - and how simple things we do as parents can somehow irrevocably damage our precious little mini-me. Remember the Russian orphanage kids who were screwed up because they were never touched? Is your kid stacking blocks at the appropriate time? The whole breastfeeding debate falls into this category - educated women are much more likely to breastfeed, kids who are breastfed have higher IQ. etc etc ad infinitum.

(I have children btw, not being sarcastic. I totally fall into this category. And wouldn't have it any other way. Maybe I should? I dunno...)

We uber-educated parents are over achievers. So when we have kids, we over achieve in parenting along with every other carefully controlled aspect of our lives. Sure, college is important - but it's just one of the many many things to feel pressure to "get right."

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Elisabeth Bailey

I find the framing around this question very odd. If you look at human behavior over the history of the species, isn't it obvious that MOST parents in most times and places have spent far more time with their children than their contemporary North American counterparts? I think the tiny slice of trending behavior caught in this comparision represents a swing back toward normality from a particularly hyperindividualized, unbalanced time.

Furthermore, why on earth _wouldn't_ parents want to spend time with their children? They are little for such a short time, and then those days are gone forever. Heavens forbid we share in our children's rapid learning and zeal for life when we could be... what? Working out at the gym? Acting nonchalant at cocktail parties? Oh, joy. A better question is this: Why do people who don't particularly want to spend time with children have them in the first place?

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