October 1, 2019

Today's parents often worry that they're not achieving the "idealized" style of intensive, hands-on parenting, but experts say that ideal is unrealistic, and that even just a few minutes of stimulating activity can benefit children, Perri Klass, a pediatrician, writes in the New York Times' "The Checkup."

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What is 'good' parenting?

Last year, researchers published a study published that sparked a conversation about what is considered "good parenting" and who can engage in "good parenting" practices, Klass writes.

The study found that parents, regardless of socioeconomic status and educational background, overwhelming favored the "concerted cultivation" parenting style, in which parents take a more hands-on approach, over the "natural growth" parenting style, in which parents took a less hands-on approach. Ishizuka found the majority of respondents. In short, both men and women viewed the ideal form of parenting as spending one-on-one time instructing their children, such as by reading or drawing together. 

Can parents always engage in 'good' parenting?

But research has shown in reality parents spend minutes, not hours, on these daily, developmentally stimulating interactions, and that's OK, Klass writes.

Ariel Kalil, a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago who authored an influential study on parenting published in AERA Open, said, "Whatever the myth of hyperparenting is, there is basically no parent who spends two hours a day reading or doing puzzles. The average amount of time parents spend a day is between 20 and 30 minutes."

However, Kalil's study did find some socioeconomic and educational differences in the amount of time parents spent with children on stimulating activities.

Rebecca Ryan, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University who co-authored the study, said college-educated mothers on average spent 14 minutes per day teaching their children between the ages of three and five years old, while mothers with a high school degree or less on average spent about five minutes per day. Some parents spent zero time on these activities, and those parents were "disproportionately low-income and less well educated," Klass writes.

Kalil, who directs the center for human potential and public policy, said, "[T]housands of low-income parents in Chicago … know reading is important … but for a variety of reasons … have a harder time following through on these aspirations."

Shifting the focus on 'good parenting'

But Klass notes that focusing on the style of parenting and reinforcing the message that good parents spend hours engaging their children can be discouraging and cause parents' well-being to suffer.

Instead of stressing about the style of parenting, Klass writes that many parenting experts today are more interested in how parents spend time with their children than the length of time—and limiting the number of "zero" minute days.   

According to Kalil, researchers have observed differences between the children of parents who do not engage in any developmentally stimulating activities and the children of parents who engage in some stimulating activities.

This, Klass writes, "is why the focus of parenting programs and interventions should be to get parents to put in some minutes—not hours—on a regular basis."

But, Kalil said, for low-income parents "to shift the needle on moving them closer to what middle class or rich parents do does not mean asking them to read an hour a night." She said, "It means reducing the number of days when nothing happens."

Klass writes, "Parents need to hear that attention matters, talking, reading, playing, singing, doing puzzles, all of it." But she adds, "We [also] need to reinforce the value of the small good moments, while celebrating the genuinely tough and deeply rewarding day-by-day job of taking care of your children as they grow, during those months and years that pass us all by so slowly and so quickly."

Without that balance, and additional support for parents in particularly stressed circumstances, "parents who can't live up to the ideal may find their own well-being and sense of efficacy suffering" Klass writes (Klass, "The Checkup," New York Times, 9/30).

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