A recent scholarly article in the Journal of Marriage and Family by Melissa Milkie, Kei Nomaguchi, and Kathleen Denny (first covered in the Washington Post) has sparked a plethora of commentary in the news media, including several critiques by Justin Wolfers of The Upshot, and a convincing response by the authors in the Washington Post. Using high-quality time use data from a national panel study, Milkie, Nomaguchi, and Denny found that the overall amount of time mothers spend with either adolescents or younger children does not matter for their children’s behaviors, emotions, or academics. What do sociologists know about the impact of parenting time on children’s wellbeing?
First, the kind of parenting time matters. Time mothers spend engaging with children makes more of a difference than the time mothers are available to or are supervising their children. So being long on love but short on time isn’t a bad thing. Engaged maternal time is related to fewer delinquent behaviors among adolescents, and engaged time with both parents was related to better outcomes for adolescents. Other studies show too much “unstructured” parental time, such as watching TV together, may actually be worse for some children under age 6, and that the quality of parent-child relationships factors in. Family dinners contribute to fewer depressive symptoms and less delinquency among adolescents, but only when parent-child relationships are strong.
- Melissa A. Milkie, Kei M. Nomaguchi, and Kathleen E. Denny. 2015. “Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend With Children or Adolescents Matter?” Journal of Marriage and Family 77(2):355–72.
- Amy Hsin and Christina Felfe. 2014. “When Does Time Matter? Maternal Employment, Children’s Time With Parents, and Child Development,” Demography 51(5):1867–94.
- Ann Meier and Kelly Musick. 2014. “Variation in Associations Between Family Dinners and Adolescent Well-Being,” Journal of Marriage and Family 76(1):13–23.
Why did this finding spark such a media response? In part, it’s because society believes ideal mothering means spending lots of time with children. Many parents strive to attain this ideal, but many working mothers who cannot attain it must redefine their definition of a “good mother” to fit with work responsibilities. Still, working mothers today spend more time with their children than employed mothers in the past.
- Sharon Hays. 1998. The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Annette Lareau. 2003. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Karen Christopher. 2012. “Extensive Mothering: Employed Mothers’ Constructions of the Good Mother,” Gender & Society 26(1):73–96.
- Liana Fox, Wen-Jui Han, Christopher Ruhm, and Jane Waldfogel. 2013. “Time for Children: Trends in the Employment Patterns of Parents, 1967–2009,” Demography 50(1):25–49.
For more on the original article and the critiques, see Sociological Images.