If you worry you are not spending enough time with your children, you can relax. Get a babysitter and go out for the evening. Studies show that it is quality, not quantity, of time that makes children thrive. While research has usually focused on mothers, a study last week on BMJ Open showed that the amount of time fathers spend with children is also less important than how much they enjoyed parenting. Fathers who took pleasure in caring for their young children were 28% less likely to have children with behavioural problems at both nine and 11 years old.
Questionnaires were sent out to more than 10,000 parents in south-west England when their children were eight weeks and then eight months old. Fathers were asked how they felt about parenthood – for example, did they enjoy watching their baby develop, how much did they play with their child and how confident were they? When their children were nine and then 11, the mothers were asked to score the children’s behaviour – on factors such as how considerate they were to others’ feelings and their kindness to younger children, as well as levels of restlessness and clinginess.
The researchers discovered that how secure the fathers felt about their role and their partner, and how emotionally connected they were with their children, were more important in reducing the likelihood of behavioural problems than the time they put in to childcare.
The final analysis was done on nearly 6,500 11-year-olds and also took into account the father’s level of education and income. Charles Opondo, of the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, was the lead author of the study. He says it shows that positive involvement means more than time spent on childcare duties. “Feeling good about being a dad, making an emotional connection with children and establishing a secure parenting relationship with mothers are perhaps even more important,” he says.
The observational design of the study means it can only show an association, rather than cause and effect. Previous research, however, says pretty much the same for mothers, other than those with teenagers, where quantity of time is also important, especially in reducing truancy.
The research suggests that parental guilt about how much time is spent with their children may be misplaced. It is the emotional connection that parents have with their children that counts. For babies and toddlers, playing, reading and bathing can be high-quality activities. With older children, parents often recognise quality time when it happens – a simple chat in the car, for example. No one says less time is better, but the research suggests that what matters most is making the time you do have really count.