The University Record, May 21, 2001

Children spend more time with parents

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Despite a sharp increase in the number of dual-career families, children spend more time with their parents than children did two decades ago, according to a U-M study.

The study, forthcoming in Demography, finds that children ages 3–12 in two-parent families spent about 31 hours a week with their mothers in 1997, compared to about 25 hours in 1981. The amount of time spent with fathers increased from about 19 hours to 23 hours a week.

“Contrary to popular belief, the increase in female labor force participation has not led to a decrease in the amount of time children spend with their parents,” says John Sandberg, first author of the article and a sociologist at the Institute for Social Research (ISR).

The study, by Sandberg and ISR senior research scientist Sandra Hofferth, is based on a comparison of time diary data from two nationally representative samples of U.S. families, both conducted by the ISR. The 1980 sample included information on 243 children, and the 1997 sample included information on 2,125 children. The children (helped by a parent, if necessary) filled out two time diaries, one each for a weekday and a weekend day, describing what they did, with whom they did it and who was present. The time diaries include activities parents engaged in with children as well as time spent just being in the same room with them.

While the study shows that there have been positive and dramatic increases in children’s time with mothers and with fathers in two-parent families, these changes are not paralleled for children in single-parent families, Sandberg notes. He found that time spent with mothers in single-parent families remained about the same over the period studied—about 21 hours a week.

Sandberg and Hofferth also analyzed how maternal employment affected the amount of time children spent with mothers and fathers. In 1981, U.S. children spent, on average, about 3.5 fewer hours a week with mothers who worked than with mothers who didn’t, he found. In 1997, the difference was about 5.5 hours. But in fact, the amount of time children spent with both working and nonworking mothers increased over the period studied, so that children whose mothers worked in 1997 spent about the same amount of time with their mothers, on average, as did children whose mothers did not work outside the home in 1981.

Whether a mother was working or not had no significant effect on the amount of time children spent with fathers in 1981 or in 1997, the authors found. However, in families with working moms, children spent considerably more time with dads in 1997 than they did in 1981. “This suggests that fathers may be taking more responsibility for child care when mothers work,” says Sandberg.