Health News Digest

December 3, 2012

Quality Time

Quality Time

By  Michael D. Shaw

This column covers health care and environmental issues. Frequently, these topics merge, and in this piece, we discuss how to improve one aspect of the environment of a young child—that, naturally, will affect his health and well-being.

Catalyzed by inflation and the energy crisis of the 1970s, two-income families have become the rule, rather than the exception. Parental guilt, and even transference and projection would spawn such notorious cases as the McMartin preschool trial of the 1980s, which produced no convictions, but cost millions of dollars, and exposed outrageous media bias and conflicts of interest.

Before McMartin, though, probably right after both parents tended to be away from their kids a lot, someone coined the term “quality time.” The idea, of course, was that you need not be concerned about all that time away from your kids. Instead, you should focus on making the time that you do spend with them be ever so meaningful—no doubt with the implication that your quality time would be far more effective than that “quantity” of time you old-fashioned parents spent with you.

However, as with roller disco and other brilliant constructs from the 1970s, history has not been terribly kind to quality time. In 2004, psychologist—and former teacher, and child and family therapist—Robert Evans posted an essay entitled “The Myth of Quality Time.” Among the points he makes…

[O]ur kids won’t let us have just quality time only. Their needs and wishes, their natural self-centeredness make this impossible. To expect otherwise is to invite frustration and guilt. Moreover, friction is not just inevitable, it’s useful. Low quality events not only do happen, they need to happen. They may not be fun, but they are vital learning experiences for children.

Trying to force our children onto a diet of brief, high quality time can only strip the naturalness right out of our communication. Imagine, for instance, that I asked you to sit down right now and have a high-quality conversation with your spouse or a friend. The demand itself is disabling. We can only have high quality time together if we have enough total time so that we can tolerate the inevitable low quality moments.

Four years later, family therapist Terry Real posted an essay with precisely the same title. His comments are even more hard-hitting:

I hate the term “Quality Time.” I would like to take the person who coined the term behind the barn and flog him.

Quality time” is nothing more than a self-serving yuppie rationalization for not being there for your kids. The fairy tale of “quality time” is that you can make up for the time you don’t have to be a good mom or dad by scheduling short doses of time intentionally focused on your kid. Let me tell you, kids do not like being intentionally focused on. The entire idea is a fallacy.

Real parenting occurs when you’re just hanging out or in the kitchen when you’re cooking together. The best conversations are when your kids are in the backseat and you’re the chauffeur. There’s a world of difference between chatting with your kids and making an appointment for ice cream and asking, “So… how are you doing?” That’s not talking to a kid, that’s talking to an adult.

Fair enough, but given today’s economic realities, parents do have to figure out more effective methods of interacting with their children—especially the younger ones. After all, as educator Chelsea Duggan puts it, “The 0–3 age range is really critical because that’s when the child is most dependent on the parent, and the parent is the superhero at that point.”

Chelsea is the founder of Milestar Babies, a subscription service providing five easy-to-use lessons per week, targeting that age group. As described on the home page, “A daily dose of learning fun! Enjoy fifteen minute activities for creative minds and busy families.”

She told me: “Milestar Babies gives parents the opportunity to have ownership over their child’s education. It gives them fresh ideas for things to do with their child each day. But most importantly, it’s an opportunity to create memories, and have fun, and really be connecting and taking advantage of the things you’re already doing with them.”

The personalized lessons are all arranged in an intuitive “Ready, Set, Go” format, and pricing seems to be quite reasonable. Each lesson has a link that allows you to click and give immediate feedback.

Sounds like a winner.