Intensive Care: What Makes a ‘Good’ Parent?

The experts who study parenting are interested in how we spend those moments. “If you really look in time diary data, on average parents are not spending hours a day doing these kinds of developmentally stimulating things with their kids,” said Ariel Kalil, a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago, and the first author on an influential study of parent time use which showed that differences across the socioeconomic spectrum have increased over time.

Rebecca Ryan, a professor of psychology at Georgetown, who was a co-author on that study, said that with children 3 to 5 years old, college-educated mothers spent on average 14 minutes a day in teaching activities, whereas mothers with a high school degree or less spend about five minutes a day. So the individual amounts are relatively small, but when you multiply those differences out across the endless (or all-too-short) days of child rearing, they can be profound.

“Whatever the myth of hyperparenting is, there is basically no parent who spends two hours a day reading or doing puzzles,” Dr. Kalil said. “The average amount of time parents spend a day is between 20 and 30 minutes.”

And the biggest difference is between parents who don’t do any of those developmentally stimulating activities and parents who do something, she said, which 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. “What I believe is that what really matters is regular steady habits of modest investment,” she said.

And yes, the parents in the zero-minutes-a-day group are disproportionately low-income and less well educated, though there are certainly plenty of low-income families where lots of reading and talking and involvement goes on. For those at zero, “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,” Dr. Kalil said. “It means reducing the number of days when nothing happens.”

Dr. Kalil directs the center for human potential and public policy, where she studies low-income families. “We’ve interviewed thousands of low-income parents in Chicago,” she said. “They know reading is important, they have books in their house, but for a variety of reasons, because life in low-income circumstances is more stressful and more unpredictable, low-income families have a harder time following through on these aspirations.”

By working with text message reminders, she said, parents can set goals for what they want to do with their children. In another study, these behavioral tools more than doubled the amount of time parents spent engaging with their children.