Are parents too busy for their kids these days?

Does modern life mean that parents are too busy to spend quality time with their children? In contemporary Britain mothers have been entering the labour market in greater numbers than in the past and there have been plenty of other societal changes too: lone parenthood has increased, marriage rates declined, and parenthood delayed. Gender roles have been changing too, away from the traditional towards something more egalitarian, so perhaps fathers do a greater share than they used to?

To answer these questions, the best data, in our view, come from the British Time Use surveys. The time diary methodology means that study participants write down what they are doing at regular intervals during the day without being prompted about specific activities. Importantly, it means that the data are not subject to recall bias.

In Figure 1, we show the average amount of time spent doing primary childcare. By ‘primary childcare’ we mean all types of activity including playing, feeding, changing nappies, etc. In order to compare like with like over the years we look at married or cohabiting couples with at least one child under the age of 5. We show the trends for mothers and fathers separately. The trend is striking: in 1960, British mothers spent around 77 minutes per day on primary childcare – this more than doubled to 168 minutes by 2015. Fathers are also doing much more – up from 11 minutes per day in 1960 to about 75 minutes in 2015.Figure 1

What does this tell us about changing gender roles? It seems that the increased participation of mothers in the labour market did not lead to a narrowing of the gender gap in primary childcare. In terms of minutes spent per day, the gap has actually widened.

But overall, we might assume that these trends mean good news for children. However, we also wondered: how do things look when we examine time spent by the socio-economic status (SES) of the parents? The question is an important one, as time ‘investment’ in children is thought to have pay-offs in later life: the returns to time investment might be doing better at school, better emotional well-being, and increased social mobility.

Researchers commonly distinguish ‘routine’ childcare activities from ‘developmental’ ones, where it is the developmental activities such as one-on-one conversation, reading together, or playing together that are thought to be particularly consequential for cognitive development. The term ‘Goodnight Moon time’ is sometimes used to capture the idea of these cognitive development activities, in contrast to ‘diaper time’ (though in recent work with the Social Mobility Commission we British-ized this to ‘Gruffalo time’ – see here for example).Figure 2

Figure 2 shows the average time spent on these developmental Gruffalo-time activities – this time for both parents combined, but split by patterns of educational attainment, which was the best measure of SES we had available. Overall, we can see that like for primary childcare, the trend has been in an upwards direction for the last four decades (here we go back only as far as 1975). However, we can also see that this increase in time spent with children has been unevenly distributed by SES. In 2015 children with two highly-educated parents receive, on average, 107 minutes per day of these developmental activities compared to 74 minutes when both parents have low educational attainment. We have argued elsewhere that parents are increasingly aware not only of the importance of education for their children’s chances of doing well, but also of the type of activities that will encourage cognitive development. High-SES parents may be able to ‘concertedly cultivate’ their children by providing stimulation and activities in a way that – for reasons including lack of resources and familiarity with developmental activities – lower-SES parents cannot.

All in all, modern life is clearly not too busy to spend time with children, as parents are spending more time with their children than ever before. However, the average masks socio-economic inequalities that may have far-reaching implications. Read more details about the trend including differences between traditional and dual-earner couples in CSI’s new briefing note CSI 27: Are British parents investing more time in their children? By Evrim Altintas