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Today’s Parents Are Spending More Time With Children

— The advent of the working mother meant parents, moms in particular, were spending less time with their kids. But research by two UCSD economists shows that trend has turned around. For the past twenty years the U.S. has seen a dramatic increase in the time that college-educated parents spend with their children. But it's unclear whether this is what we would call quality time.

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Aired 4/7/10

The advent of the working mother meant parents, moms in particular, were spending less time with their kids. But research by two UCSD economists shows that trend has turned around. For the past twenty years the U.S. has seen a dramatic increase in the time that college-educated parents spend with their children. But it's unclear whether this is what we would call quality time.

UCSD economics professor Valerie Ramey found that today's parents are spending more time with their kids than parents 20 years ago.
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Above: UCSD economics professor Valerie Ramey found that today's parents are spending more time with their kids than parents 20 years ago.

UCSD economist Valerie Ramey and her family moved to a new house a few years ago. Ramey said she immediately started to notice something about their new neighbors, especially the mothers.

"When we moved from a neighborhood where few of the parents were college educated, to our new neighborhood where most of the parents were college educated, far fewer of the mothers worked," she said. "In fact some had quit their careers to stay home and take care of their children, and take them around to all of their activities."

That personal experience eventually lead to an academic paper called the Rug Rat Race, which was written by Ramey and her husband Garey, who's also a UCSD professor. They examined diaries kept by parents over a 42-year period. From 1965 to the late 80s, those diaries showed parents were spending less and less time with their children. But in the 1990s, that trend reversed. Ramey said a typical college-educated mother in 2007 spent about nine more hours a week with her kids than a college-educated mom in the late 80s. Ramey said there was another interesting finding.

"When we looked at where the increase in childcare came from, it came more from the older kids," she said. "And much of it was increased time spent in education. Also, chauffeuring them to organized activities was the other big source of the increase."

The Rameys developed a theory about why this was happening. Parents, they believed, were spending more time preparing their kids for a tough fight to gain admission into universities. This trend has occurred as the children of baby-boomers were growing up and the number of kids graduating from high school dramatically increased.

"So there was an increase in demand for college slots, but the supply of college slots, particularly at the good universities, didn't increase as much as the demand," said Ramey.

While the Rameys did find some increase in parental attention among low-income families, it wasn't nearly as much as among educated families. Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said when it comes to parenting, social class makes a difference. She said lower class children today typically spend their time as middle class kids did a generation ago. They hang out with their friends, watch TV and they don't spend a lot of time being managed by their parents.

"All parents want their children to grow and thrive and be successful and happy," said Lareau. "But middle class parents, and I define them as having a college degree or more, generally view children as a project."

And that's not necessarily bad, she says. But middle and upper-class kids can get stressed out if the parental push to achieve gets too intense. San Diego family therapist David Peters has seen anxiety and depression in teenagers who are pressured to be admitted to high-status universities.

"And really as you go higher in class I see this more, there is a fear factor, a fear that the family will lose something if the student doesn't remain on top, allowing the family to remain on top," said Peters.

Talk to your average educated parent on the street and they generally agree that modern parents are more protective and attentive. But they don't think it's all about getting into Stanford. Barbara Meserve is a mother of two kids in Point Loma. Her eldest is a 16-year-old girl.

"I guess in our own situation my daughter is pretty self-motivated," said Meserve, "and we try not to put too much pressure on her because we don't want her to burn out before she even gets to that point."

Another San Diego mom told me raising her kids is a project, and 90 percent of her conversations with her husband are about the kids. She sometimes fears she's coddling them, but she hopes she's done a good job being a parent.

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