Parents put in a full day's work raising two children -- triple the time experts had previously estimated

Parents with two children put in 7.5 hours a day raising kids -- three times more than experts had previously estimated because they had only considered primary child care, a Cornell University time-use expert has found.

"When time-use experts reported that parents spend an hour and 42 minutes a day in primary child care activities, parents balked, knowing it was far from their true efforts," said Cornell's time-use expert, Keith Bryant. "Our new data much more accurately reflects the kind of time parents really put into raising their children."

For the first time, researchers here have added together all the time parents put in raising their kids; that includes primary child care (bathing, dressing, teaching, supervising, counseling, driving and feeding children), but also secondary child care (time spent with children while doing other things, such as cooking, housework, hobbies, etc.) and shared leisure, household work and eating times -- what many parents call "quality" time -- playing together, watching TV or eating meals together.

In a new Cornell publication, Child Rearing Time by Parents: A Report of Research in Progress, part of the Consumer Close-Up series published by Cornell's College of Human Ecology, Bryant and Zick summarize their three published 1996 studies. The research analyzes the amount of time parents in two-parent, two-children families spend raising children, spaced three years apart, to age 18. (The study, therefore, covers a 21-year period.) They used data from the 1975-1981 Time Use Longitudinal Panel Study, the 1977-78 Eleven State Time Use Survey and the 1985 Americans Use of Time Data, and did not look at families with one child or more than two children.

All told, parents with two children spend an average of 57,661 hours -- almost eight hours a day -- raising them to age 18, much of this occurring while the children are younger than age 6.

"When mothers don't work throughout the child-rearing years, the parents together spend about 7.7 hours a day on child-rearing, compared with 7.3 hours when the mothers work throughout their children's youths," said Keith Bryant, professor of policy analysis and management in Cornell's College of Human Ecology, who collaborated with Cathleen Zick (Cornell Ph.D. '82) of the University of Utah. "That's a difference of about 23 minutes a day."

Also, at-home moms put in 65 percent of the child-rearing time, while working moms put in 60 percent, Bryant said.

The researchers also found that fathers with two sons spend 1,000 more hours with them sharing leisure time and 1,000 more hours in shared household work than do fathers with two daughters.

During child-rearing, parents spend about 22 percent of their efforts in primary child care, 10 percent in secondary child care, 13 percent sharing household work, 31 percent sharing leisure activities and 25 percent sharing mealtimes with children, regardless of whether the mother works or not.

In one study, Bryant and Zick compared mothers from 1985 with mothers from the 1920s. Their findings, published in the Journal of Family & Economic Issues (Vol. 17, pp. 385-392, 1996), include:

  • Modern women spend about the same amount of time per day in primary care of all their children compared with their counterparts in the 1920s.
  • Modern women, however, spend twice as much time per child on primary child care, primarily because they have fewer children and are better educated than mothers in the 1920s.
  • Looking at fathers, the researchers found that in 1985 dads spent about 26 minutes a day in primary child care, up from 21 minutes in 1975, or an increase of about one-fourth. (Information on fathers is not available from the 1920s.)

"There is no evidence, therefore, that parents are spending less time in primary child care activities than they used to," Bryant and Zick report. "Rather, they are spending more."

In Social Science Research (Vol. 25, pp. 1-21, 1996), the researchers report on primary and secondary child care and how a mother's employment and the age of the youngest child influenced hours put into both types of care. Among their findings:

  • When moms don't work during their children's youth, parents spend about 59,082 hours raising the kids. Dads contribute about 35 percent of that time.
  • When mothers work throughout the child-rearing years, parents put in 56,177 hours -- 23 minutes less a day than families with at-home moms. Dads contribute about 40 percent of the time -- about one hour for every 2.6 hours of the mom's.
  • When mothers enter the labor force after the youngest turns 6, dads contribute about 36 percent of the child-rearing time, about one hour for every 4.1 of the mom's. Together, the parents spend about 14 minutes less a day in child-rearing than do families with full-time, at-home moms.

"These are small numbers that gain significance when they're added up over the entire child-rearing period," Bryant said. "The difference is about halved, however, when mothers become employed after the youngest child turns age 6. Since child development experts argue that most development occurs before age 3, the difference in the time parents spend in child rearing by the employment status of the mother may turn out to be relatively unimportant."

  • Parents with higher incomes devote more time to child care than lower-income parents.

In the Journal of Marriage and the Family (Vol. 58, pp. 227-237, 1996), the researchers looked at shared parent-child time and how it is affected by the mother's employment and the children's gender.

  • When both children are boys, fathers spend 1,000 more hours with them in shared leisure and 1,000 more hours sharing household work, involving the home, yard, car and pets compared with fathers in families with two girls.
  • Moms share the same amount of leisure time with their children whether they have girls or boys.
  • However, when both children are girls, moms spend 1,000 more hours sharing household work with them, such as in meal preparation and family-care activities, than mothers in families with two boys. "If sharing housework with children is an important way that children are taught to do household tasks, then it's not surprising that the historically gendered division of household work is so slow to change," Bryant said.
  • When both parents work, they spend the same proportion of time engaged in the various uses of time as other families, with the exception of shared housework; in that activity they spend less time with their children than do other parents.

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