How Much Quantity vs. Quality Time Should You Spend with Your Children?

How much time is enough time to spend with children to ensure that they feel loved, safe and valued? How much time spent with children can ensure that they will have sufficient self-esteem and self-confidence?

Can parents actually overdo it by spending too much time with their children?

I remember being influenced by a powerful article in Mothering Magazine in the 1980s that described something I had never heard of – benign neglect, the idea that not paying total attention at all times to children is something healthy.

The article stressed the idea that children benefit from and actually need to be left on their own sometimes – sort of opposite to being a helicopter parent. [This kind of parenting is a little like the no-rescue parenting as described in this article or free-range parenting as described on the WebMD website.]

Benign neglect has to do with giving children opportunities to be by themselves, to think alone, play alone, to not be dependent on parents for entertainment, constant feedback or suggestions for what to do with their time. It made me think, “Can there be too much quality time spent on children?” And the answer appears to be yes!

Which is better?

In March 2015, the Washington Post published an article entitled: Making Time for Kids? Study Says Quality Trumps Quantity written by Brigid Schulte. This article shares the results of the first large-scale longitudinal study of the impact of time parents spent with their young children with regard to their academic achievements, behavior and emotional well-being. It turns out that spending more time with children did not translate into better outcomes for those children in these categories.

The researchers went on to say the following: “… the study found one key instance when parent time can be particularly harmful to children. That’s when parents, mothers in particular, are stressed, sleep-deprived, guilty and anxious. “Mothers’ stress, especially when mothers are stressed because of the juggling with work and trying to find time with kids, may actually be affecting their kids poorly.” 

This is not to say that it is unimportant to spend quality time with children by doing things like reading to them, having conversations about experiences and observations they have made, or sharing activities like cooking or gardening.Times spent in these activities promote connection, a sense of community, and instill values in children about how families care for each other.

Children should never feel abandoned nor should they experience the kind of neglect that puts them in danger.

It might be a relief to parents to discover it is more important to take the pressure off them so they need not feel obligated to constantly attend to, affirm, guide and otherwise engage with their children. Instead, they might feel relieved instead to allow children to experience the freedom of figuring things out by and for themselves and themselves.

As a result, children also learn they are not the center of the universe (which is a conclusion children may make if parents drop everything to always attend to every whimper or requests for help in solving problems or figuring out how to spend time).

Interestingly, researchers found spending time with adolescents mattered differently:

“… the quantity of time parents spend does indeed matter during adolescence. The more time a teen spends engaged with their mother, the fewer instances of delinquent behavior. And the more time teens spend with both their parents together in family time, such as during meals, the less likely they are to abuse drugs and alcohol and engage in other risky or illegal behavior. They also achieve higher math scores.  The study found positive associations for teens who spent an average of six hours a week engaged in family time with the parents. So, these are not huge amounts of time.”

Finding a balance providing quality time can be a challenge. It requires mindfulness in the sense of participating in meaningful interactions with children without overdoing it, getting stressed out, or feeling pressured to be constantly monitoring, engaging or interacting with kids.

There is no exact correct amount of time parents should spend with children. But it is interesting to note that research is showing less may be more in terms of the positive outcomes for kids. Apparently Mothering Magazine had it right back in the 1980s by encouraging parents to appreciate the concept of benign neglect.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. To what extent do you feel stressed or pressured to make sure you are spending sufficient quality time your children?
  2. Are you surprised to learn that it might be better to spend less time with your children in order to give them time to experience “benign neglect?”
  3. What can you do to figure out how to balance quality time with children and the kind of quantity of time spent with them that also gives you some of your own personal time separate from parenting?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

Additional resource: The Modern Parenting Crisis You Never Hear About