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Moms, take a breather – ‘intensive mothering’ isn’t necessary

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More time spent parenting doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes for children, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

The study was the “first large-scale longitudinal study of parent time,” the Washington Post reported, and was intended to examine the idea that intensive parenting is necessary to raise healthy, successful children.

One of the study’s authors, Melissa Milkie of the University of Toronto, expected the study to find that more parental time produced measurable benefits for children. When this turned out not to be the case, “I was shocked,” Milkie told the Post.

The study looked at both “available time,” when parents were in the same place with children, and “engaged time,” when parents were directly interacting with children. Increasing either kind of parenting time had no effect on a child’s well being as measured by assessments of behavioral problems, emotional problems or academic performance.

Parental time involvement is less important for children’s well being than a mother’s education, family structure or family income, according to the study.

Researchers did find that for adolescents, spending at least six hours a week interacting with parents was associated with fewer risky behaviors (like drinking) and higher math scores.

The study authors wanted to examine the “culture of intensive mothering” that puts pressure on parents, especially mothers, to maximize the amount of time they spend with children.

The “ideology of intensive mothering — the belief that the proper development of children requires mothers lavishing time and energy on offspring — is pervasive in American culture,” the study authors wrote. “Mothers clearly do not easily live up to the expectations of intensive mothering; attempts to do so are exhausting and stressful for them."

"At the same time that more and more mothers have entered the workplace, the standards for what we considered a good mother to be have been racheted up," Brigid Schulte, the author of the Post article, told Dian Rehm in an NPR interview. Knowing that the quantity of time spent parenting doesn’t necessarily predict good outcomes may reduce stress and guilt for many mothers.

Family researcher Anna Sutherland warns against overgeneralizing from the study. It’s important to note that the study did not include children younger than 3 years old, she wrote for the Institute of Family Studies.

Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project told NPR, "We've got a lot of research showing that kids do benefit from mom time in in the first year of infancy, especially."

Sutherland also observed that “The study did not measure mothers’ or fathers’ warmth or sensitivity, nor did it distinguish between the many forms 'engaged time' can take (e.g. reading a book or eating dinner together versus watching TV together).”

The study authors caution that “this is not the definitive study that trumpets ‘Mothers Do Not Matter for Children.’” Milkie told the Washington Post that “building relationships, seizing quality moments of connection … is what emerging research is showing to be most important for both parent and child well-being.”

“Instead of going to extremes to maximize the number of minutes each parent spends with the kids, focus on ensuring that the time you do have together is spent well,” Sutherland advises.

Time spent with both parents is especially important for infants and teens, Wilcox said. "Take time as a family to do things that are fun, important or meaningful."