The children’s hours

The children’s hours – family

Joshua Fischman

The children’s hours

“Quality time’ has become a watchwordin two-career families, and many working parents try to set aside time in their hectic days to devote to their children and to one another. But what are the qualities of “quality time,’ and just what difference does it make in the lives of these children?

That remains unclear, according toa study by the Institute for Social Research (ISR) at the University of Michigan. Institute researchers surveyed 1,500 American households in 1975, asking each family member to fill out a time-use “diary’ for four days, logging the amount of time they spent on each daily activity. Children younger than 6 years old were excused from this task, and their parents provided information about them. In 1981, the researchers repeated the survey with 922 of the original families, and conducted personal interviews.

A detailed portrait of family life inthe United States has emerged from these efforts, a picture of parents, children and a large television set in the foreground. Not only did watching television prove to be the most popular leisure activity for every man, woman and child, but it was the single major recreational pursuit shared between parents and kids. Television viewing took up about one-fourth of the time spent together each week. The total amount of time that children spent in front of the TV varied a lot with their ages, but not much with sex. Eleven- and 12-year-old boys watched the most, about 26 hours per week, and 3- to 5-year-olds the least, about 13 hours.

More surprising, perhaps, is thathomemaker mothers spent even more time watching TV with their kids than working mothers did–a total of about eight hours each week, on average. Employed mothers averaged 6 hours and 40 minutes of shared weekly viewing time.

“The most striking finding was therelatively small amount of time parents in either type of household spend in “quality time’ activities,’ the researchers report. These activities were primarily focused on the children, such as reading to them, conversing or playing with them. Working mothers spent only an average of 11 minutes each weekday doing such things and 30 minutes per day on weekends. Homemaker mothers did spend more time this way, devoting 30 minutes each weekday and 36 minutes each weekend day to their offspring. But the researchers call even these amounts “surprisingly small,’ and they believe the difference may simply reflect the younger ages of children with homemaker mothers, who need more attention than do the older children whose mothers work.

Fathers, mostly employed outsidethe home, spend even less “quality time’ with their children than working mothers do. Dads devoted a scant 8 minutes to their kids each weekday, and only 14 minutes a day on weekends. And the way fathers spend their time is not affected by whether their wives work or not. Fathers don’t spend any more time with their children when the mother works; instead, the researchers say, “what changes is the mothers’ time use. Apparently, working mothers try to compensate by cutting back on things like sleep and leisure activities.’

The effect this has on a child’s developmentis not at all clear. To get some measure of the children’s intellectual abilities, the researchers gave each child portions of a standardized achievement test. Curiously, the children who spent the most time with their parents during the week were also the kids who scored lowest on these tests. “Perhaps this means they were spending more time together watching TV,’ the researchers suggest, “but it could also mean that parents were devoting extra time to helping children who had learning difficulties.’

The blame for poor performancecertainly can’t simply be laid on television alone, the researchers say. Japanese 10- to 15-year-olds, who score higher on standardized tests than their American counterparts, watch just as much TV: two and a half hours each weekday. Television is not the culprit behind low scores, the researchers believe, but a more likely suspect is the little time Americans give to intellectual tasks outside their classrooms. Japanese kids spend a good deal of time studying outside of school, hitting the books for nearly three hours every day, in contrast to just half an hour for the Americans.

The American 9- to 17-year-oldswho watched more weekend television did score a little lower on these tests than their classmates who watched less, but the researchers caution that the difference was very small. The time children spend on television is not time they would otherwise spend reading or “improving their minds,’ the study found. Instead, TV hours come out of time spent on personal care and, on weekends, church.

Apart from the repercussions ofmissing church, the researchers conclude that “many of our fears about the [wide-ranging] negative effects of TV watching on intellectual development appear to be overblown.’

The study was conducted by ISR psychologistsJacquelynne Eccles, Pd.D., Susan Goff Timmer, Ph.D., now in Paris, and graduate student Kerth O’Brien. A report appeared in the book Time, Goods, and Well-Being, published by ISR in 1985.

Photo: In the beam: Families spend one-fourth of their time together watching TV.

COPYRIGHT 1986 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group