Parenting: Now vs. the 1960s

(Laura’s note: I’m taking the week off and revisiting some blog posts from years past. This post ran in spring of 2010).

Tara Parker-Pope’s Well blog over at the New York Times highlighted findings this week from economists Garey and Valerie Ramey that college-educated parents are spending lots more time with their kids than they did a generation ago. The Rameys studied time diaries kept during different periods from 1965 to 2007. They found that before 1995, mothers spent an average of 12 hours a week attending to their children. By 2007, that had risen to 21.2 hours for college-educated women, and 15.9 hours for women with less education. A different analysis from Betsey Stevenson and Dan Sacks at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that college-educated men had upped their game too, spending 9.6 hours per week tending to their children, up from 4.5 hours before 1995.

The headline on Parker-Pope’s piece deemed the findings “surprising” and she quotes Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute as saying that parents feel like they don’t have enough time with their children, and that is “a function of people working so hard… I’ve never found a group of parents who believe they are spending enough time with their kids.”

I really like Galinsky’s work, but we must not talk very often, because after analyzing my time for the past two years, I feel like I am in that elusive group of parents. My kids and I spend a lot of time together. Not just time eating meals, getting dressed, taking baths and rushing in the stroller to get somewhere. Relaxed interactive time. Earlier this week I knocked off work at 4pm to take Jasper to the ice cream shop; yesterday evening we went and hung out at a local fountain and pointed out all the colors of the flowers. Weekends feature even more of this kind of thing. Sunday was actually a 3-park day by the time we were done.

One thing that makes all this time possible is that my kids go to bed pretty late. But having interviewed tons of parents for 168 Hours, I know that my schedule isn’t particularly unique, which is why I don’t find this new study surprising at all. While Galinsky may be right that people are working hard, we are not necessarily working long. The average American work week is now down to 33 hours, and according to the American Time Use Survey, the average parent who works full time is logging somewhere between 36-44 hours per week. Of course, the college-educated folks who define our cultural narrative of the time crunch are likely working slightly longer weeks. But other time diary analysis studies have found that people claiming to work 70, 80, 90 or more hours per week are, on average, working less than 60. With 168 hours per week, that still leaves plenty of time to hang out with your kids.

And these days, parents really do seem to want to do that. Moms in particular go to amazing lengths to protect time with their children when they work outside the home as well. Moms who work in offices that require evening face time get up early and turn mornings into mommy-and-me time. Moms who don’t have the face time requirement but have high volumes of work leave the office at 5, hang out with the kids until their bed-time, and then do another 2-3 hour shift afterward. They’ll put in a half-day on a weekend while their kids are at karate practice, or trade off with their spouses, so the kids don’t lose any parental time, but each parent gets to log a few weekend work hours. Perhaps the most culturally interesting part of this is that fathers are starting to behave this way too.

The net result is that the time parents spend interacting with their kids has not fallen as women have entered the workforce. Indeed, as the culture of marriage has become more child-centric, it has risen. There may be some downsides to this (Lenore Skenazy, Paula Spencer and others have made careers of lampooning over-parenting). But there are plenty of upsides too. I mean, I feel so lucky to live in a time when not only do I get to spend lots of time playing with my kids, I can also channel my ambitions into building a career as well.

Of course, time is a zero sum game, so as the time women spend working, and with their kids, has risen, something has had to go down. The social science is pretty clear on what this thing has been: housework. As I argue in 168 Hours, I think this is a good thing. It means parents are largely focusing on the things they do best. I’m glad to see that social science research is backing all of this up.

3 thoughts on “Parenting: Now vs. the 1960s

  1. While I don’t like housework, it’s one of the few ways that I think my children can develop a work ethic- it’s part of why I garden, because they can weed with me. If they pull up a vegetable, I can relax, because our garden doesn’t have to feed the family.

    I fear that the focus on parents playing with their children has created young adults who expect work to be fun. A few people (you, my history professor friend, etc.) seem to like their work. But most people (bus driver, septic tank pumper, cashier) don’t, and not everyone will get a job that (s)he likes, especially not throughout life.

    I borrowed this quote from a colleague. “That’s why they call it a job, son. If it were fun, they’d charge admission.”

    1. @Twin Mom- the fact that the garden doesn’t have to feed the family is key. Throughout history, countless children have had to drop out of school to work family farms because they were required to feed the family — a huge squandering of human capital. The good thing about the specialized economy that replaced the largely agrarian one is that those kids can now pursue work they are most interested in. I agree that not everyone can find a “fun” job, but I do think it’s possible in a varied economy for most people to find work they think is relatively pleasant. Pondering all this, what I most want to teach my kids is that it is possible to love your work. Yes, you want to be paid well, but life is great when you find your work inherently enjoyable for its own sake and not just as a means to a paycheck.

  2. Laura,
    Thank you for your article and for sharing your response to Twin Mom. While I do agree that it is possible to find a job that you enjoy, the probability of doing so is low. I am an elementary school teacher and the one thing I pride myself on is always being honest to my students. I find it very important to share the good with the “not so good”. After reading your response, I did a little research on “how many people enjoy their jobs” and saw results that indicate that as much as 80% of people do not enjoy their jobs. Once again, I do agree that it is possible to find enjoyable jobs or careers, but there should be an equally emphasis on the fact that life is hard and there will more than likely be times that they will be required to do things they will not enjoy doing. I have never heard the quote Twin Mom shared, “That’s why they call it a job, son. If it were fun, they’d charge admission.”, but it is so on target for most of us. By “us” I mean “society”. I am actually someone who enjoy my job. Thanks again for your thoughts!

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