How much time do we spend caring for kids?

Over at Facebook and here, a few people have asked me about the numbers in the previous post. Specifically, how it is possible that moms who are not in the workforce and have young kids spend so little time on childcare? Also, how is it possible that this number is only about 42 minutes more per day than moms who are employed? Here’s why:

* Moms who are in the workforce don’t spend that many hours working. The average comes out to less than 35 hours per week. Not 80.

* It’s impossible to interact with kids 24/7 because, past the baby stage, they have their own lives. Even kids aged 4-6 spend many hours a week in school. Babies and toddlers nap. Kids play independently and they watch TV, which leads to the next point…

* These numbers are for childcare as a “primary activity.” That means you are actively engaged in caring for the child. If the child is watching TV while mom is checking email, this is not counted. If he’s playing outside in the backyard while she’s cleaning the kitchen, it isn’t counted.

People can argue with this. This method doesn’t count benefits that may be gained by being under the same roof. But you could argue the other way too — that if a kid would just be watching TV, he might be better off in a high-quality daycare for a few hours, where he’d be learning in a structured environment and playing with other kids.

The ATUS simply reports primary numbers rather than choosing sides. However, there are also numbers for time spent with kids as a secondary activity. Women spend 6.72 hours per day providing secondary childcare for children under age 6. This 47-hour/week commitment is closer to what people think of as the time involved in caring for a child. Unfortunately, these figures aren’t broken down by employment status. I presume that women who not in the workforce would have higher numbers here. But even fathers, almost all of whom work full-time, spend 30 hours per week providing secondary childcare. What we can say is that parents spend a lot of time around their kids, but not much time interacting with them.

* We spend even less time, on average, reading, playing and doing educational activities with kids. People often ask me why these numbers are so low, even for SAHMs of young kids (less than 8 minutes a day of reading). But you could turn this statement around, too. Why do we expect this number to be higher? The reason is that the popular media portrayal of a SAHM is of a highly-educated woman who has opted out of a fast-track career to devote that same energy to her kids.  This is an accurate characterization of some chunk of mothers, but not of all. Some women are not in the workforce because they can’t get jobs. Or they can’t get jobs that would pay for childcare.

3 thoughts on “How much time do we spend caring for kids?

  1. Thanks for the explanation Laura.

    It’s good to remember that these numbers are averages too. When I read that SAHM’s of young kids spend less than 8 minutes I was kind of taken aback. I spend more time than that every night at bed time. Then I remember that there are other mothers who don’t who are going to bring my own average down.

    Any way you look at it, it’s good to point out the information. I know I have taken a little time to review how much time I am spending doing things that aren’t productive (Facebook, tv, daydreaming – lol) instead of spending them on the goals that I want to accomplish.

  2. I also think it’s important not to get all judgemental and well I hit 8 minutes just at bedtime. If you are slacking in the parenting department you know it and we all do the best we can regardless of education. I think men’s numbers need to come up whether they are watching tv with the kids or not and women should be working closer to 40 or 45 hours. I think as women if we could focus on that we’d be getting further ahead instead of making it about, wow I am the best mommy and that mommy let her kid watch a video. I’d put those comments right up there with the women who are obsessed with working out or looking perfect after kids. We should be focused on empowering ourselves and pushing for a 40-hour workweek and the kind of wages that allow us to put our kids in the kind of care they deserve.

  3. The numbers sound perfectly reasonable to me. I was a child in the late 1950s-early 1960s, and my mother was a “typical” woman of her era, never working outside the home until her husband died and her kids were teenagers. Yet she didn’t spend more than a few hours a day “caring” for us once we were old enough to have interests of our own. When school was in session or the weather was good, I could go entire days without interacting with my mom outside bedtime, dinner (and her prodding my lazy butt to get up in the mornings).

    What she *did* spend more time on than most women do now, I suspect, is housework, including cooking. That’s not because she was some paragon of homemakerly virtue (in fact, she told me years later, she hated housework); it was because that was the standard of her time and class.

    I doubt there are many people today who vacuum the house daily, wash windows weekly or hang the laundry out on a line – and then spend hours ironing it. My mom did that daily for more than 20 years, even after her four kids were old enough to help. At which point her time “interacting” with us did increase – supervising and checking our work, or reminding us to do it.

    On days when I can barely muster the energy after my paying job to throw in a load of laundry, I marvel at how well she did it all, but it came at a high cost in social isolation and fatigue – and if her kids benefitted from it, we certainly didn’t appreciate it until we were grown enough to know just how much work it was.

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