Buying Into The Quality Time Myth

dad playing with kidsBy Kathy P. Behan

I don’t buy the whole myth of quality time. Yeah, you should do interesting, stimulating and closeness-promoting activities with your kids, but I object to some of the other meanings that this phrase has taken on. For instance, the underlying message is that if you spend a little bit of time doing something that qualifies as a “quality” activity, it counts as much as if you had spent long periods of time doing nothing valuable with your children. In other words, if you spend quality time with your kids, it gets you off the hook for all those hours you spend away from them.

That’s why this theory’s a crock. It’s a concept made up to assuage the guilt of busy parents. But why shouldn’t we feel guilty for not spending enough time with our kids? Kids deserve our time. And feeling guilty is a helpful emotion. It can make us rethink our positions, to adjust our priorities, and to motivate us to try harder to do what’s right.

More than anything else, kids, especially when they’re young, want to be with their parents. And in their hearts, if not their heads, parents know it. Under normal circumstances, when they’re not tempted by the lure of a dream outing, children could care less about what they do, or where they go, and more about whom they’re doing it with. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to find special things to do with our kids, or that it’s OK to plant them in front of a T.V. for hours on end as long as we’re in the same room.

What it does mean is that the activity is often secondary. Many kids with stay-at-home moms, for example, would often choose to run errands with their dads rather than to play games with their mothers. Even though any self-respecting kid would prefer playing to chores any day, the opportunity to be with dad is usually too good to pass up.

Another problem with the quality-time concept is defining what exactly counts as a quality activity. Going to a museum should certainly qualify. But what if you go to a museum that doesn’t hold your child’s interest, or if you don’t bother to talk to your child about what you’re seeing. How about shopping? Does that count? If you and your kids are doing this together, isn’t this a quality activity? To me, quality time is doing almost anything. The only criteria is that you and your kids are doing it together, and you’re interacting with each other.

I’d guess that some people who buy into the quality-time line entered into parenthood with unrealistic expectations. As novice parents, most of us are unprepared for the seemingly endless demands of our children. We quickly learn that taking care of a child is much more difficult and consuming than we probably ever imagined. But luckily, most of us aren’t foolish enough to believe that there are shortcuts we can take in raising children.

That’s why this theory’s a crock. It’s a concept made up to assuage the guilt of busy parents. In order to do it right, you simply have to put in the time. But sometimes people aren’t willing to do that. They try to find a way to be let off the parental hook because they don’t want to make any concessions to parenthood. After they have children, they want their lives to continue completely unchanged, making no allowances for the new member or members of their family.

Unfortunately, we all know this type of parent. They’re the people who panic at the thought of spending time with their kids. One such couple took their kids on a supposed family vacation. The father skied all day. The mother spent all her time in a hotel room writing her thesis. The children were placed in a day care center from early morning until dinnertime. A nanny would pick up the kids from the center, go out to eat with them and put them to bed. The parents would meet up for dinner and drinks, and then return to their sleeping children.

What kind of a message are these parents giving their children? Kids aren’t dumb. No matter how often they’re told they’re loved, if their parents aren’t around them enough, they get the opposite message loud and clear. They don’t count. They’re not worthy of attention. They’re not important to their parents.

The fact is there is no substitute for quantity time. The greatest gift that we can give our children is ourselves — our time and our attention. Nothing else even comes close.

Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a nationally published freelance writer, specializing in health and family issues.

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