Parents Spend More Time With Kids Today Than They Did 50 Years Ago

A new study may help ease some of your biggest parenting woes. 

Photo by William Abranowicz

Working moms and dads may feel guilty about not spending enough time with their kids, but a new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests they’re doing a better job than previous generations. In fact, parents across most Western countries are logging more family hours today than parents did in the 1960s, say researchers.

What’s more, time spent with kids was highest among parents with higher levels of education—a finding that was somewhat unexpected to the study authors.

To compare parents of today versus those of 50 years ago, researchers from the University of California, Irvine and Collegio Carlo Alberto in Italy looked at study data, collected in 1965 and 2012, on more than 122,000 mothers and fathers in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, Denmark, Norway, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Slovenia.

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Each parent participating in the study completed a daily diary, indicating how much time he or she spent on interactive and routine child-care activities such as preparing meals, feeding and bathing, reading, playing, and helping kids with homework. The researchers selected one day at random from each diary to calculate their results. 

Their findings from all but one of the countries showed an increase in in the amount of time parents—both moms and dads—spent with kids. (France was the only outlier.)

In 1965, for example, mothers devoted an average of 54 minutes a day on child-care activities, compared to 104 minutes in 2012. Fathers’ time with children nearly quadrupled over the same period, from an average of 16 minutes a day to an average of 59.

Then the researchers separated the 2012 results into two categories: parents with a college education versus parents without. Somewhat surprisingly, they found that the former group spent more time with their kids than the latter. Moms and dads with degrees spent an average of 123 and 74 minutes with their kids per day, respectively, compared with 94 and 50 minutes for those with no education past high school.

“According to economic theory, higher wages should discourage well-educated parents from foregoing work to spend extra time with youngsters,” said co-author Judith Treas, PhD, UCI Chancellor’s Professor of sociology, in a press release. “Also, they have the money to pay others to care for their children.”

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Yet, the results do make sense in other ways: Highly educated parents are “more aware of the developmental payoffs to parental time with children,” the authors wrote, and “their intensive parenting practices confirm their privileged social status by differentiating them from parents in lower social classes.”

They also wrote that less educated parents may not have the resources to spend time with their children, as they may have to work longer hours for lower pay. 

Still, with the exception of France, time with kids increased across the board between 1965 and 2012. This shows that families of all income levels are recognizing the importance of regular parental presence on their children's mental, behavioral, and academic outcomes, Treas said. That’s especially true for dads, she added: “Contemporary fathers—having more egalitarian gender views—want to be more involved in their children’s lives than their own dads were."

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The authors aren’t sure why family time decreased in France while it increased elsewhere, but they think it may have something to do with the country’s high rate of public spending on child-care, which lightens the load of parental responsibility. “Some experts speculate that the French simply believe children can accommodate successfully without parents making big changes to their lifestyles,” Treas said.

The authors also noted that, while the benefits of more family time are clear for children, they are less black-and-white for parents. “Parents undoubtedly find children rewarding,” they wrote, but spending more time with them does introduce more challenges. Research shows that mothers and fathers are increasingly expected to do more at work and at home: Today’s supermoms are often tasked with being primary caregivers as they’re climbing the corporate ladder, while modern-day dads face social expectations about being the family breadwinner but also sharing housework and childcare duties.

In other words, they concluded, parents may have a hard time doing it all and doing it well—and they need supportive public programs and employer policies to make it happen.