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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.
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.



For more on the original article and the critiques, see Sociological Images.