Why working parents should stop feeling guilty about missing out on time with their children

Kelly Yang says families, and employers, will benefit when parents make the most of the occasions they are with their kids

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 2:12pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 8:31pm

Working parents, I have news! A new study - the first ever large-scale, long-term study - of parent time by the University of Maryland has found that the amount of time parents spend with their children between the ages of three and 11 has almost no relationship with how the children turn out, both emotionally and academically.

What's more important than sheer quantity of time is quality; things like reading a book to a child, sharing meals, going for a walk, for example. But staggeringly, even that pales in comparison with two other variables that are far more important than time spent with children: income and a mother's educational level. In other words, rich trumps time.

Wow. If I didn't know any better, I'd say the study was written by a banker. It goes against everything I'd ever thought or experienced, which is that, when it comes to children, time is king. Yet, after poring over the study for two days, looking at all the various control variables and charts, it's hard to deny the science.

The science is this: whenever we are stressed, sleep-deprived, guilty and anxious, it rubs off on our children. We've all been there: sighed when they ask us to take them to the park, our eyes sliding to the report on our laptops that's due on Monday. How many of us have sat through school events with one eye on our child and the other on our watch? I know I have.

Apparently, our children can feel every little sigh and wince. "Hey, but at least we were there!" we say. According to the study, being present and accessible isn't the same as being engaged. We don't get brownie points just for being around.

If only we could compartmentalise better and spend time with our children without feeling any stress about all the work we have to do. But that's easier said than done, especially in today's technological world, where having a job often means being accessible 24/7.

And while the number of hours spent working has increased in the past few decades, so has the number of hours spent with our kids. For dads in the US, the average time spent with their kids has tripled, from 2.6 hours per week in 1965 to 7.2 in 2010. For mums, it rose from 10.5 hours in 1965 to 13.7 hours in 2010, even as the percentage of working mothers rose from 41 per cent in 1965 to 71 per cent in 2010.

No wonder we're sleep-deprived and crabby - we're working more and spending more time with our kids.

Is the answer, then, to just forget the children and focus on increasing our income, since that's more highly correlated with success, anyway? I can picture it already: my son walks up to me and asks if I can come to his soccer match. I tell him sorry, kiddo, the correlation for that is just too weak.

Ultimately, I think the thing to take away from the study is not to ditch our children or load up on work. It's to ditch our guilt. There's no point being around our kids and feeling guilty about our work. We'll do our children more harm than good.

Similarly, there's no point being at work and feeling guilty about not being with our kids. Both will survive without us, but both will thrive with us, if we're our full selves when we're around, and not just half our selves.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk