family riding bicycles through nature scene

How to make time spent with your kids really count

Many parents feel guilty about whether or not they spend enough time with their children. As we juggle jobs, household chores and other commitments along with our parenting responsibilities, we might worry that children are missing out on family time.

Surely in the good old days, people spent more time with their kids? Or are we feeling nostalgic for something that never really was?

A recent paper published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that for children under 11, at least, the quality of time spent with kids matters far more than the quantity.

And it turns out modern parents are actually spending MORE time with their children than they typically did in 1965. According to Pew Research Center data, (based on families in the U.S.) mothers spend an average of 13.5 hours a week with their children (compared to 10.2 hours in 1965), while fathers spend 7.3 hours (2.3 hours in 1965).

 graph of time mothers and fathers spend with children

The new research confirmed what has been found in the past – that the benefits of parents spending time with children are not related so much to the amount of time, but to the kinds of interactions that happen in that time. The ideal scenario is for parents to have the skills and knowledge to help make time spent with children a positive experience for both.

In a Washington Post interview, study co-author Melissa Milkie commented:

“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.”

So what IS important? The minute-to-minute, every day interactions we have with our children. These can have more of a bearing on a child’s emotional development than many parents realize.

Spending quality time with your children includes things like noticing what they’re doing (without them asking for your attention, either directly or by misbehaving), as well actively taking a few minutes out of your day to have a chat, and listening carefully when they ask a question.

By doing things like this, you’re acknowledging your child’s individuality and self-worth, and providing an opportunity for your child to learn social and emotional skills.

Emotional and social skills are almost as important as cognitive intelligence for children’s success at school and university, according to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which analyzed data from 11 countries. They even cite Norwegian research which found that teenagers with strong social and emotional skills were likely to earn eight percent more as an adult.

It’s very easy to find yourself only half-listening when your child is talking to you. Try stopping what you’re doing and giving them your full attention. Taking the time to talk to your kids helps them learn the art of conversation. It shows you’re interested in what your child has to say, and helps you teach them how words can be used to express feelings and ideas.

When you have a chat with your child, you can ask them about their day and also share your own news. This is a great way for kids to learn that having a conversation is also about listening as well as talking. They’ll be learning important social skills which will help them make new friends and keep them.

And make sure your kids know how loved and cared for they are with hugs and kisses (tuning into the level of physical attention they feel comfortable with) and by telling them and showing them you love them.