The XX Factor

Congratulations, You’re a Helicopter Parent. Feel Better Yet?

Jess, you and I went back and forth a couple of weeks ago contrasting a French book mocking over-parenting, Elisabeth Badinter ‘s Le Conflit: La Femme et La Mère ( The Conflict: The Woman and the Mother ), with ” The Rug Rat Race ,” a study from UC-San Diego researchers Garey and Valerie Ramey which found a dramatic increase in the time parents spend on caring for their older children, specifically on time spent “coordinating and transporting them to their activities.”

Valerie Ramey said she spoke to “moms with graduate degrees [who] quit their jobs because they needed more time to drive their children to activities,” and neither of us saw that as a good thing. You focused on the sheer craziness of what the study authors described as possible “wasteful overinvestment,” while I panicked over the possibility that said overinvestment might actually be necessary . (I have four kids. Would that mean 80 hours a week in the car?) In an article for today’s NYT , Tara Parker-Pope uses the same study to put an entirely different spin on things : “mothers and fathers alike are doing a better job than they think, spending far more time with their families than did parents of earlier generations. … Family researchers say the news should offer relief to guilt-stricken working parents.”

It may be possible to read a paper called “The Rug Rat Race” and come away with the conclusion that, based purely on the numbers, family life must be improving. But I don’t feel relieved. The study’s authors attribute that rise in time spent on child care to the increased competition for space in a “good” college, which they blame for escalating college admission requirements and the time spent on college-prep activities. That may technically amount to a “rise in child-centered time,” but there’s a difference between two hours spent hiking together or playing a little competitive Monopoly and two hours spent shuttling from dance class to Kaplan (and that counts time spent waiting in the car for the child to finish her stint at achievement and return to the vehicle). Does spending more time shuttling a child to their activities really constitute “doing a better job”? Science Daily points out that pure demographics suggest that this particular use of parenting time may soon become outdated-once the cohort behind the children of baby boomers is much smaller, and college admissions should become less competitive once there are fewer students competing for the same slots. That dramatic rise may become a dramatic drop without any real lessening of family happiness or togetherness. Working parents used to focus on “quality time” with kids, a phrase that quickly became shorthand for a combining long periods of neglect with bursts of attention. But neglect can be benign (aren’t we supposed to be raising independent human beings?), and focused attention will always be a rare and desirable commodity in a busy household. Compared with “wasteful overinvestment,” “quality time” is looking pretty good.