Maternal time with children: When weak social science meets an uncritical press

Does the amount of time mothers spend with children or adolescents matter? This question is addressed in a recently published paper by sociologists Melissa Milkie, Kei Nomaguchi, and Kathleen Denny. The arresting answer —“maternal time with children does not matter for children’s development”— has unfortunately received a good deal of press coverage, starting with a long piece in the Washington Post.

There are two related problems here. First, the media reports have drawn conclusions not supported by the results of the study. Second, the study itself, which contradicts a sizable body of previous research, suffers from serious technical and analytic flaws. As a result, the main message being communicated is deeply misleading.

Feeding the flames of the “Mommy Wars”

The Milkie et al. paper sets up a media-friendly straw man, namely that mothers — implicitly highly-educated mothers — are trapped in a pattern of “intensive parenting” that diminishes their own health and well-being and provides no benefit to their children. This feeds into a popular frame about the stresses for mothers of balancing work and family.

But there is no evidence of a “mental health tax” on mothers resulting from time spent with their children. In fact, our work (and that of the Pew Research Center) shows that the principal source of happiness for mothers, whether they work outside the home or not, is spending time with their children. It would be possible to use the PSID dataset to investigate any link between maternal investments of time and psychological distress, but the authors do not. They show that mothers’ stress and/or depression is related to poor child outcomes, but offer no evidence that this psychological distress is related to the amount of time the parent spends with their child.

“Intensive parenting” and “quality time”: phrases in search of definition

The paper highlights the risk of “intensive parenting,” without defining or measuring it. The mothers in the sample studied spend on average about two hours per day engaged with their children aged between 3 and 11, and about one hour per day engaged with their teens. Is a couple hours a day really “intensive parenting”? No doubt, there is a point of diminishing returns on parental time investment. But a more sophisticated analysis would be needed to establish it, and to measure how many mothers exceed it.

The authors’ main conclusion is that “not quantity of time, but rather its quality” is what matters. But the paper does not in fact test this hypothesis. Quality of time is not measured. Nor is the time that could be seen as “high-quality” (e.g., reading to young children) differentiated or quantified.

In fact, decades of developmental theory and empirical research suggest that specific kinds of parent-child engagement are strongly correlated with certain outcomes: for example, reading and talking to support cognitive development; helping with homework to support academic achievement; playing to promote behavioral adjustment.

Insufficient parenting is the problem, not “intensive” parenting 

These are not just scholarly quibbles. The research, especially as refracted through an uncritical media lens, runs the risk of distracting from the real parenting problem: millions of children, primarily those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, have parents who on any given day do not spend any time with them in developmentally supportive activities.

Rather than provoking unnecessary anxiety about “intensive parenting,” we should be worrying about helping convert these “no time investment” parents into “at least some time investment” parents. To send a message that time spent with children is not important does a great disservice to families and ignores a long and respected research tradition that demonstrates precisely the opposite.