Thursday, April 30, 2015

Looking Beyond “Quality vs. Quantity” Time with Kids

As a person trained in the methodology of family science, there is nothing that bothers me more than when the media misinterprets a research article. Researchers know this happens frequently and are often leery of publicizing their work (even interesting work) because of this issue. Case in point—the recent study that was all over the media concerning the amount time parents spent with their children.

You probably read the headlines—“Parents, give up the guilt, study says quality time matters more than quantity.” It is quite telling that almost every article that discusses this study includes the word “guilt.” This tells me that this is an emotionally charged issue, not just for the readers, but perhaps for the journalists writing the articles.

First, before I delve into this further, let’s look at the basics of the study:

  • the study examined children ages 3-11 and adolescents ages 12-18
  • the outcomes that were assessed in the children included emotional adjustment, academic achievement and behavior
  • the authors looked two types of time: (1) accessible time—time in presence of mother, but not engaged in an activity; (2) engaged time—basically any time engaged with the mother in an activity
  • the data came from time diaries from one weekday and one weekend day.  The authors “created” weekly sums by extrapolating 2 day sums to a full  week (they say this is a common practice)
  • they also looked at children and adolescents’ time spent with their father (alone) and both parents
  • as usual, the study include other structural factors—mothers’ education, family income, family structure (i.e., two-parent, single parent, step-family, etc)

 First, the main finding that prompted all the headlines was this one: the sheer amount of time mothers spent with their children was not associated with any of the child outcomes. It did not matter when the authors looked at engaged time or accessible time; the amount of time was not related to outcomes. This was for children only; there were some relevant findings concerning time spent with adolescents (I’ll save that for another post).

Okay, that is interesting but does it imply the headline that “quality trumps quality.” In contrast to virtually every media outlet around (except notably the Brookings Institute), I say “no.” This finding does not imply that quality trumps quantity when it comes to time spent with children. As the authors themselves point out, they did not specifically assess “quality” time.

“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.”

To adequately assess the question of quality time versus quantity of time, a study would have to specifically measure these two concepts distinctly and compare them. This study did not do that. Although this study did separate out engaged and accessible time, it did not define either of these as “quality time.” From this study alone, we have no better understanding of what “quality time” actually looks like or what types of activities might be more beneficial for children. This was not the goal of the study, yet the media has extrapolated from this study that “quality trumps quantity.” Yet another disappointing example of how the media often overlooks the details of a study to get a flashy headline.

As I mentioned, the word “guilt” was included in almost every story written about this article. What does this tell us about the state of parenting today? Apparently, we as parents (perhaps including the journalists) are dealing with a lot of guilt. I understand this. I am a stay-at-home parent so I spend a lot of time with my kids and I still feel guilty at times. Yes, I put my kids in front of the TV sometimes just so I can have a few moments of peace or time to cook dinner. Is the answer to this to believe whatever the media tells us to moderate the feelings of guilt? I believe not.

How about taking a different approach? How about we “own” these feelings of guilt and use it as an opportunity for self-reflection. How are our children doing? Are they misbehaving at school or acting particularly rebellious at home? If so, maybe this is a sign that we do need to spend more time with them. However, it’s not because we feel guilty; it’s because our children need us. If our children are overall adjusted and seem to be functioning well, then maybe our guilt it just societal-driven and not based on anything real.

We all face many pressures as parents in today’s culture. I think the key is to take some time to really look at your specific family and decide whether your choices to work or stay at home or work part-time are really meeting the needs of everyone involved. If so, then have confidence in your parenting and the idea that you are doing best you can. Please do not buy into this media-contrived idea of “quality vs. quantity.” This is not the answer; parenting and life are much more complicated than that. 

ResearchBlogging.orgMilkie, M., Nomaguchi, K., & Denny, K. (2015). Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend With Children or Adolescents Matter? Journal of Marriage and Family, 77 (2), 355-372 DOI: 10.1111/jomf.12170

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Affluence as a Risk Factor

Although poverty is a well-documented risk factor for children at a variety of level, affluence (and the parenting approaches sometimes linked to it) is becoming a challenge all it's own for American children. After Americans have spent decades improving their standard of living, the risk for some children now is having too much, rather than not enough. As you can see from the graphic below, affluence brings it's own set of issues for families. Although not all affluent families exhibit this over-protecting parenting style, you can see that it's common enough to produce challenges for many children.

  The Challenge of Prosperity
Brought to you by Counseling@Northwestern’s Online Masters in Counseling

Monday, January 5, 2015

Want to Try Out a New Parenting App?

I hope some of you are still out there reading this blog. It's a constant work in progress so thank you for sticking with me. 

If you are like me, you spend a lot of time on your smart phone. If it's not apps, I'm using it to look up activities for my boys or play music. More and more companies are realizing how useful smart phones are for parents and are making some very innovative apps for us. I have recently been doing some part-time work for just such a company. They are building an innovative new app for parents that will be released soon. Right now they are in the testing phase and are looking for some parents to test this new app. Here is what they are looking for:

-- Parents with children between the ages of 7-14 months.
-- *MUST* use an iPhone and be able to use apps
-- Willing to provide weekly feedback (either via email and one "focus" group type meeting          via Skype phone or video)

Approximately 25 qualified parents will be selected to participate.The testing will begin around January 12th and continue till the end of January. 

Parents who complete the email and focus group feedback will receive a $25 gift card as compensation.

**If you think you might be interested in participating please contact: jessica(dot)eckford(at)

This is a great chance to really help inform the development of this new app. The company really wants some honest feedback from real parents.
Feel free to share this opportunity with parents you know!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Little Boys Need Help with Big Emotions

If you are a parent of a young boy you know that, despite the cultural stereotypes, boys feel strong emotions just as much as girls. Unfortunately, in our society we often (perhaps unwittingly) encourage boys to hide their emotions or “be a man.” I think more awareness to this issue has emerged in recent years, but it is still an important topic to consider.

New research is shedding light on the importance of helping young children, especially boys, learn how to cope with their powerful emotions. Researchers at the University of Illinois investigated how parents reacted to their toddlers’ negative emotions (e.g., anger and social fearfulness). Two possible parental reactions that were examined included:

-         minimizing the child’s emotions (e.g., saying, “stop acting like a baby”)
-         punishing the child for their emotional outburst (e.g., sent to room or having a toy taken away)

The results indicated a clear association between parents punishing their child for their emotions and a greater chance of the child being withdrawn or anxious at a later time point. Perhaps most importantly, this finding was stronger for little boys, especially those who experience more frequent negative emotions. Researchers point out that when parents punish children for negative feelings, they soon learn to hide their emotions and can become withdrawn or anxious.

As parents of young children, we deal with the negative emotions of our children every day. As an adult, this is mentally and emotional taxing. Sometimes it may seem easier to punish or scold your child for his or her outburst rather than helping them cope with the emotions. This research clearly shows, however, than remaining calm and talking with your child to help them understand their strong emotions will aid them more in the long term. Toddlers are sometimes overwhelmed by the strength of their emotions and they need our help. We have the opportunity (as challenges as it is) to model for them how to cope with difficult emotions.

ResearchBlogging.orgEngle, J., & McElwain, N. (2011). Parental Reactions to Toddlers' Negative Emotions and Child Negative Emotionality as Correlates of Problem Behavior at the Age of Three Social Development, 20 (2), 251-271 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9507.2010.00583.x