The guilt. The guilt!
Today’s parents, especially today’s mothers, are filled with guilt.
It gnaws at us at pickup time, at bedtime, long after the kids have gone to sleep and we’re Red-Bulled out of our minds making costumes or cupcakes or scrapbook photo albums to prove to ourselves and everyone around us that we are there for them.
But smothering isn’t mothering. And we have, at long last, scientific proof that more of mom isn’t necessarily better.
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The study, which will be published in April in the Journal of Marriage and Family and was described in The Washington Post by my colleague Brigid Schulte, looks at the academic achievement, behavior and emotional well-being of kids 3 to 11 years old in relation to the time they spend with their parents.
Guess what? Kids who log fewer mommy/daddy hours are great. Just. Fine. Their success and happiness — as well as we can measure these things — aren’t too different from the kids who can’t seem to shake their ever-present parents.
What matters is the quality of the time, not the quantity of time.
Common sense, right? You’d think. But we are a generation of parents twisting ourselves into knots trying to live up to what amounts to a big, fat myth.
The legend is that Moms Back Then — when moms made up about a third of the labor force and a fraction of the professional world — spent all their waking hours nurturing their precious children.
Moms back in 1965 didn’t hover. The phrase “helicopter parent” was not in their vocabulary. They spent more time cleaning their homes, experimenting with aspic loaf recipes, and playing bridge than they did bonding with their brood.
This was the heyday of the Peanuts gang, when adults were a wha-wha-wha voice in the background, and kids, Snoopy and a weird bird went on adventures together without any parents present.
An analysis by the American Time Use Survey cited by a recent Pew Research Center study showed that American moms in 1965 spent a full 10 hours a week with their children and that dads devoted just 2.5 hours a week to caring for their kids.
So what’s going on now, when about 75 percent of mothers are in the workforce, including those in boardrooms, courtrooms, newsrooms, laboratories, legislatures and law firms, engineering a supposed social catastrophe that makes traditionalists fret? Why are they spending time chasing their careers and not bonding with their kids?
Today’s moms spend — wait for it — 14 hours a week with their kids. That’s more than their non-working, 1965 counterparts. And dads are spending up to seven hours a week with their sons and daughters.
So that means today’s kids are getting nearly twice the face time with parents than the kids from the Peanuts gang-era ever got.
Our overparenting is nothing to brag about, as any free-range parent would tell you. We ought to be modeling ourselves on the mothers of 50 years ago, whose best child-rearing trick was telling their kids to go outside to play until dinner. And in that parent-free time, when the kids followed the weird bird or searched for the Great Pumpkin, they became imaginative, resilient, independent, clever little people fueled by boredom, necessity and grit.
There are two huge takeaways from the new research.
The first: Those extra four hours that we squeeze out of our stone-cold days to be more present than those 1965 moms are not necessarily helping our kids become awesome humans. They’re just making us exhausted. And crazy.
I am Exhibit A of this, jamming museum visits and park adventures with my kids into every waking moment that I am not at work. Yet I know they get more out of their own game of lacrockey — their hockey/lacrosse hybrid invention — in our alley than yet another guided tour of the U.S. National Arboretum azaleas by me.
The second point so often forgotten in our never-ending mommy wars: Yay Dad! Many men have really stepped up in the lives of their children, which ought to be relieving pressure on women.
But our guilt remains unrelenting. And it’s built around a myth, a mom that never existed, and it’s fueled by a deep fear and loathing of women in the workforce.
Stop. Parents — let it go. And let them go. Being the sun around which your child must constantly orbit isn’t unconditional love, it’s narcissism.
Whether kids have us for 10 hours, 14 hours or 20 hours a week, extreme helicoptering and extreme absenteeism are the obvious things to avoid. Anything in between — especially if it is high-quality and possibly includes a weird bird — will help our kids turn out all right. Our guts — and now data — tell us so.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Metro section.
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