When it comes to raising children, it’s commonly believed that the more time a mother spends with a child, the better and more well-adjusted that child will turn out.

A new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family is poking holes in that theory, revealing findings that show that the quantity of time a mother spends with a child between the ages of 3 and 11 means very little.

The researchers examined the amount of time children spent exclusively with their mothers (meaning without their fathers or others present) and how that time impacted behavioral and emotional health as well as academic performance. To get their results they analyzed time diaries and survey data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics Child Development Supplement in 1997 and 2002. They looked at two types of time mothers spent with children. The first was accessible time, meaning the total amount of time the child spent with the mother, but not necessarily participating in an activity with the mother. The second type was engaged time, or, the time a child spent taking part in activities with the mother.

“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,” said coauthor of the study, Melissa Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto.

“In the United States today, cultural beliefs about childrearing center on the near-sacredness of mothers for children,” write the study’s authors. “Mothers’ time with children is widely thought to be unique and irreplaceable, because they are purportedly more sensitive to children’s needs and more selfless in caring for offspring. The ideology implicitly suggests that children’s time with mothers is more important than time spent with any other adult.”

These expectations for mothers, especially working mothers, are often unattainable and, according to the authors, can cause exhaustion and stress. As it turns out, that very pressure to be there as much as possible, and the stress it causes to mothers may do more damage to a child than good.

Kei Nomaguchi, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University and co-author said, “Mothers’ stress, especially when mothers are stressed because of the juggling with work and trying to find time with kids, that may actually be affecting their kids poorly.”

“In an ideal world, this study would alleviate parents’ guilt about the amount of time they spend and show instead what’s really important for kids,” said Milkie.

The study authors note that, while they did look at engaged time during which mother and child were interacting with each other, the study did not focus on the quality of time spent. They note the example of reading or sharing meals together versus watching television or cleaning. The study also did not assess the tone of the mothers’ interaction with the children, and whether or not they displayed warmth, sensitivity or focus. “These may be more important than the sheer amount of time mothers spend with children,” write the authors.

So, what does make a difference for children? Parental education was shown to have a positive effect on children’s math, reading and studying skills, and family income was associated with how well a child did in math. Also children living in two-biological-parent families were found to have better academic, behavioral and emotional well-being than children brought up in other family configurations.

Once a child hits the teen years, the impact of time spent changes. The more time an adolescent spends with his or her mother can reduce the number of delinquent behaviors. Meanwhile, teens who spend more time together as a family are less likely to engage in risky or illegal behavior.

Milkie’s ultimate advice to parents after completing this study? “The amount of time doesn’t matter, but these little pieces of time do. Just don’t worry so much about time.”

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