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Parental time study doesn’t say ‘quality trumps quantity’

You know that study everyone is talking about that supposedly shows quality time trumps quantity for outcomes in children? No it doesn’t. After reading it, the headline I want to give this study is this:

Three female academics crunch numbers to find time with children matters less than mother’s academic achievement on children’s outcomes.

They reference ‘intensive mothering’ over and over again throughout the study, saying, “By conceptualizing time in terms of quantity rather than quality or nature, we were able to analyze main tenets of intensive mothering ideology: that more mother-child time is beneficial for children’s outcomes and that mother’s time is uniquely important for children.” There was an agenda here from the outset. They clearly wanted to disprove the “ideology of intensive mothering” because if they actually wanted to study it they would have controlled for parenting style. They could have devised a study that focused on attachment parents and the like, because lets be honest, that’s usually what’s meant by “intensive mothering” isn’t it?

The Washington Post report says “In new study, quality parenting trumps quantity,” and indeed throughout the article repeats this erroneous conclusion. However in the study, which you can access right here, the authors specifically say,

…although we examined engaged time, in which children and mothers were interacting with each other, we did not focus on quality time – the amount of time in particular quality activities with children, such as reading or eating meals together versus watching TV or cleaning with them – neither did we assess the quality or tone of mothers interaction with children, such as warmth, sensitivity or focus.”

All this study did was take data collected from two days in each child’s life and analyse it to make assumptions about whether there is a difference in outcomes between the time a mother is ‘available’ versus ‘engaged’ with the child. In children aged three to eleven, there was “no statistically significant associations between maternal time of either type and any child outcomes.”

So, presumably, lots of available time with no engaged time, engaged time the entire day or no time at all with the child had zero effect on the outcomes this study looked at.

Lets say that again: this study says it doesn’t matter if you spend all day engaged with your kid or no time at all.

The study looked at reading and maths scores, emotional problems as reported by the mother, and behavioural problems as reported by the mother in children three to eleven. The measures that did affect these outcomes were mother’s education, family income, and being a part of a family with two married biological parents.

Also, teens that spent more time engaged with their mothers were less likely to self report delinquency, and engagement with both parents had an affect on a few of the outcomes. But again, mothers education, family income and family structure had a bigger impact on these outcomes than any type of time spent. I want to know how a parent can get a teenager to spend time together unless he’s used to doing so in a non-judgemental environment all his life.

The study threw out five cases where the time reported with the mother was more than the amount of time a typical child is awake. They threw out cases where the child wasn’t living with the biological mother. They didn’t look at quality time, they didn’t look at parental warmth and they didn’t look at parenting style. Importantly, it’s very likely they knew from the outset that these things matter more anyway. It’s pretty well established that parental warmth is of utmost importance for child development, with one study showing that eight month old infants with the warmest mothers had better outcomes thirty years later.

More than four years ago, Laurence Steinberg Ph.D. wrote, “Much research has examined how the child’s development is affected by such factors as divorce, remarriage, and parental (especially, maternal) employment. As a rule, these studies show that the quality of the parent-child relationship is a more important influence on the child’s psychological development than changes in the structure or composition of the household.” You can find out more about the Professor at Temple University here, who has written at least 300 articles, and 14 books including a textbook on adolescent development.

So if “much research has examined” this stuff already then why was this study conducted? The answer is Impact. Academics are always looking for ‘impact’ in the public sphere because generally we don’t listen to them much, so when we do they get excited (along with their employers, prospective employers, etc.) These researchers were just slyly using the mommy wars to get impact. Their study had no real conclusions about anything.

If they really wanted to study what affect parental time with children has, they would have looked at more than two days of each child’s life and controlled for parenting style. Then, maybe more parents would be able to see that there are a vast array of ways to do the best you can for your child. The key is to do the best you can for your child.

Featured image courtesy Geek Calendar

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  1. “I want to know how a parent can get a teenager to spend time together unless he’s used to doing so in a non-judgemental environment all his life.”

    Right? I mean controlling all variables in sociology studies is impossible but at least aknowledge when something else could be influencing your data. In this case time spent during childhood could easily influence the outcomes during adolescence. Yet, they somehow conclude that time spent during childhood makes no difference!? How could they conclude that exactly?
    But the part that really astounded me was how backwards the media got the study. I mean they usually spin things but this time they were contradicting the exact words written in the study. I mean seriously, did they even read the abstract?

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