In her 2014 book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, journalist Brigid Schulte examines our culture of busyness and what should be done about it. In addition to recommending institutional changes like more generous leave policies and more flexible work schedules, Schulte says that women in particular would benefit from changing the way they experience their life outside of work. Citing the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, she argues that women’s downtime is often “contaminated” by “keeping in mind at all times all the moving parts of kids, house, work, errands, and family calendar.”
In a recent post for Fast Company, journalist Reva Seth offers up a paradoxical remedy for parent’s contaminated non-working life: treat it more like work. Calling this strategy “metric parenting,” Seth explains that we should consider “using the same tactics to meet goals and deadlines at work in order to get more of what you want in your family life.”
Seth says that while interviewing more than 500 parents for her book The MomShift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Having Children, she noticed that a number of parents were setting defined parenting goals for themselves and regularly tracking their progress toward meeting these goals. Over the five years in which she followed her interview group, these “metric parenters” reported feeling happier with the ways they were balancing family life and work than those who took less systematic approaches. Seth offers parents four tips on how to best succeed at “metric parenting”: define your goals, break them down into actions, record your progress, and celebrate your accomplishments. “Instead of feeling guilty, you may find yourself feeling accomplished. And you’ll have the metrics to back it up,” Seth writes.
For the growing number of people who will never pass up an opportunity for self-quantification, this manageable approach to parenting might very well be useful. Child-rearing and work both require an ability to focus and follow through; if someone’s figured out ways to improve those skills at work, why not go ahead and try them out with their kids? In Overwhelmed, Schulte recommends battling an abiding sense of busyness by organizing one’s time into chunks dedicated to one purpose. Now I am pushing my son on the swing. Now I am slicing carrots. Seth’s approach is similar, except she asks parents not just to be aware of what they are doing in the moment, but also to set an intention and observe whether they are following through with it.
This approach might be good for some parents, but I don’t think it benefits kids in all cases. Children are fluid, ever-shifting creatures; their needs change rapidly and forcefully, and what makes you a good parent one day won’t necessarily be helpful the next. Of course there are some habits, like limiting screen time, that are generally good for families, no matter their current disposition. Still, when a parent’s too preoccupied with doing and measuring whatever they decided they should be doing more of, they might easily miss what it is their children need.
Maybe mom decides she should go on more class trips, but what her daughter could really use is a day playing hooky and going to the movies and the nail salon. Or—back to the too easily maligned gadgets—there might be an evening when dad insists on putting his phone down (all part of his master plan), but his tween son wants to do is pick his up. Maybe he’s just made a new friend and they are debating Beatles albums on the latest hologram chatting service. Or maybe he’s just had a hard day and is in desperate need of 20 minutes of internet browsing-induced mindlessness.
In Overwhelmed, Schulte interviews a leisure studies researcher named Ben Hunnicutt. In his view, leisure time isn’t necessarily about what you are doing, but whether you are “being open to the wonder and marvel of the present.” Metric parenting might help you kick a few bad habits, but if all that list-keeping and goal-meeting ends up blinding you to why you wanted to be a better parent in the first place, it’s probably not worth it.