It’s become too easy to tack the phrase “industrial complex” to the end of something to make a hyperbolic statement about its nefarious, far-reaching influence in modern life. Nevertheless, it appears that working parents seem to be under the subtle control of one I’ll call the “quality family time industrial complex.” It’s propped up by a network of businesses, books, and other commercial interests that make their product feel as important as water and air.
In the US, it includes the $150 billion family vacation market, in which a four-day, four-person trip to Disney World can cost $5,000. Globally, there are billions more at stake for the cinemas, bowling alleys, gaming arcades, and local mini-golf courses all promising to assuage your guilt for working long hours, in exchange for a pricey weekend afternoon of family entertainment. Even parents who don’t consider a $42 kid’s price entrance fee to a zoo too steep for anything more than a once-a-childhood visit may still feel pinched for time in pursuit of an uninterrupted family outing.
Fortunately, a handful of studies are challenging the “special family-time” ethos that defines the American cult of parenting. For instance, in 2015, University of Toronto sociologist Melissa Milkie published a study showing that the amount of time children aged 3 to 11 spent with parents had no measurable impact on their emotional well-being, behavior, or academic success.
Although Milkie’s research— a large-scale, longitudinal study—didn’t dispute the positive and necessary benefits of sharing meals or one-to-one time, it did find that the quantity of time parents spent with their little ones mattered little. “I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes. . . . Nada. Zippo,” Milkie told the Washington Post. (Notably, Milkie found, the story changes in adolescence, when spending more time with mom is connected to lower levels of delinquent behavior.)
A British study published last year in BMJ Open came to a similar conclusion, though it was focused on fathers. As the Guardian noted, children will apparently have fewer behavioral problems in school if their dads enjoy parenting, a factor that is more important than the quantity of time a father and child are together.
If it’s not the quantity of time that matters, perhaps it’s an interest in the quality of it that prompts parents to open their wallets so widely for special experiences with their children. But if you go back to a 2007 study led by Tamar Kremer-Sadlik, a professor of anthropology at UCLA, you can find some helpful insights into what quality time really is. And it’s literally nothing special.
The authors claimed that the quiet, in-between moments of family life did as much of the real work of family bonding as any fabricated family time. They noted: “Everyday activities (like household chores or running errands) may afford families quality moments, unplanned, unstructured instances of social interaction that serve the important relationship-building functions that parents seek from ‘quality time’.”
Children seemed to value those regular moments more than the elaborate, scheduled, “fun” occasions, the study’s authors argued, citing previous research.
Dawna Ballard, a professor of communication at the University of Texas at Austin, brought this paper to Quartz’s attention, saying she often cites it when she hears parents talk about the stress and cost of “quality” family time—and the guilt they feel for coming up short. (Ballard is a chronemics scholar, examining the role that time plays in communication.)
Granted it’s a small study. The researchers interviewed and videotaped 32 families in the Los Angeles area; all were dual-earner, two-parent American families, so we don’t know if we can generalize beyond that audience.
But any parent will certainly recognize the definition of quality family time as filtered through cultural pressures. It is conceived, as they describe it, as “concentrated, unstressed, and uninterrupted” time that “should make up in quality for what may be missed in quantity.” Also, this sacred time is supposed to be dedicated to kids’ interests, not to mom and dad’s. All of this leads to feelings of guilt or failure among parents if they can’t supply enough of it, don’t really enjoy it, or find that the whole engineered family-time experience bombs. It also forces parents to squeeze necessary, workaday activities, like grocery shopping, into smaller and smaller time slots, stressing parents out, and helping nobody.
By comparison, the family-bonding scenes the authors share in their 2007 paper feel much easier to pull off. One small slice of life that was filmed and then analyzed by the researchers is called “At the Car Wash with Mom,” and opens with Beth (the mother) and Tim (her son, age 10) sitting on a bench waiting for their car to be delivered.
Tim: Watch. ((Bends down to drive the airplane on the ground))
Beth: ((Bends down to observe Tim))
Tim: See? Look.
Beth: Very cool.
Tim: ((Straightens up)) Or
Beth: ((Straightens up)) What do you call this, by the way?
Tim: ((Bends down to drive the plane)) The Vulture.
Beth: ((Bends down slightly)) The what?
Tim: The Vulture.
Beth: The Vulture ((laughing voice)).
Tim: See? Look. ((Bends down to drive the airplane on the ground))
Beth: ((Watches Tim)) You are an amazing boy.
Tim: Mom, look how it takes off. See? ((Tim straightens up and so does Beth))
Tim: The wings look like a vulture.
Beth: Does it take off vertically or- or- regular?
((Tim bends down and Beth follows))
The researchers note that Beth took an interest in what Tim was doing and complied with his request for focus on his world by paying attention and asking questions. Their body language—bending down together, standing up together—indicate that the pair are connecting emotionally. “These segments, like numerous others in our video data, illustrate how amidst everyday life moments, parents can find numerous opportunities to attend to their children, connect over shared interests, and have loving, caring moments,” the researchers explain.
In other words, they urge parents not to miss these opportunities, whether in between or in place of structured family time. It’s the same simple idea that was clearly, and beautifully, captured by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney in “When all the others were away at Mass” [from Clearances III – In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984]:
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.