Parenting on 2 – 3 hours a day – is it enough?

At various parenting talks I have given recently I have informally surveyed how much time full-time working parents are actually spending with their children (when they are awake), and it amounts to between two and three hours a day, depending on the age of the child and what time they go to sleep.

Just think practically for a minute of how I arrived at this figure, assuming (a full-time working parent in a busy South African city, who uses their own car, sits in heavy traffic to and from work, doesn’t have flexitime, has children between the ages of 2 and 7 years of age and children go to aftercare at school after extramural activities each day):

  • 5.30am           Wake the children
  • 5.45 – 6.15am Dress and feed the children
  • 6.15 – 7am      Drive to school
  • 7 – 7.15am      Do a tabletop activity if at preschool
  • 5.30 – 6.30pm Collect children from aftercare, drive home
  • 6.30 – 7.30pm Bath kids, cook, eat, clean teeth, bedtime

It’s bad enough looking at how rushed any form of emotional connection must be in the morning, but it’s insane how much needs to take place in the space of just one hour at home when everyone is exhausted at the end of a long, busy day. Give a little thought to the fact that a toddler should be asleep by 6.30pm and a preschooler by 7pm at the latest. I increasingly see these little children in supermarkets at 8pm and arriving in restaurants after 9pm when they should already be in bed.

Preschools are opening crèches’ left, right and center to deal with the demand for care of newborns from just six weeks of age, many of whom are often fetched only between 5.30 and 6pm. I know this is often a necessity for full-time working parents without  an extended family support structure, and many employers provide little flexibility in this regard — I am not judging, but merely highlighting a prevalent issue that will impact on us all eventually.

We have a dilemma

Surely this is not good for the parent-child bond, let alone a child’s development?  I chatted to veteran educator, Margot van Ryneveld, Principal of Stepping Stones Pre-primary & Sandhurst Preparatory College in Sandton about this dilemma, and she says we have a very real problem on our hands.

“Although schools teach a child a prescribed curriculum, whether in preschool, primary or high school, what most parents are unaware of is that 85% of what children learn they learn from their parents – from watching them and interacting with them, and not from the formal instruction in school alone. Parents are in fact the ‘hidden curriculum’ – a very vital and often under-utilised curriculum at that. 

“Parents are increasingly working long hours to afford their children a quality education but in the process are actually short-changing them of vital input that they cannot get anywhere else.” Margot adds that some parents believe because they are paying a lot for their children’s education they are permitted to surrender pivotal parental responsibilities to school teachers. 

Furthermore, many parents tend to have an unrealistic expectation that schools should provide the children in their care with a formal education whilst also filling the parental void created by dual working parents.While schools can, and often do provide child care/aftercare, this by no means replaces the parent’s role in the child’s upbringing. 

According to recent research from the University of New Hampshire, a child’s ability to perform and thrive has direct links to parental involvement in their school careers. While not in the classroom with our kids, our degree of interest and support of their endeavours and experiences; and in creating a home environment that supports learning, the school and the curriculum, is a crucial factor. 

This ‘parental effect’ is very hard, if not impossible, for schools to reproduce on their own, despite increased spending per child. What is interesting is that there is a trend for parents to reduce their supportive efforts as schools increase and improve their resources, which actually diminishes the effectiveness of such resources. 

What’s happening in the trenches? 

Parental involvement is not a call for helicopter parenting, but we do need to be engaged and involved in the educational and personal development of our children, both at home and at school. Sadly there is an increasing abdication by parents to ‘parent’, even when they are with their children as can be witnessed all around us, according to Margot: 

• Parents often take cell phone calls as they walk into the classroom or aftercare to drop off or collect their children thereby destroying the moment of emotional connection. There is a clear and visible disconnect between the primary care givers and their children. 

• On the journey to and from school, children are buckled into car seats and then a DVD or other electronic device is turned on to keep them occupied, resulting in little to no effective parent-child interaction. 

• There is an increasing trend to outsource parenting roles to au pairs and nannies. These secondary care givers tend to collect children from school and care for them at home in the absence of their parents. 

 • Even when children and parents are together they are often glued to mobile screens of one form or another even in public spaces like restaurants or parks. Margot recently observed a parent take out a portable DVD player and earphones and place them in front of a young child in a restaurant. The child was immediately isolated in a world of electronics rather than engaging in real conversation which Margot regards as a social and developmental tragedy. 

• Parents tend to afford their children a disproportionately high level of exposure to two-dimensional play experiences on electronic devices, rather than immersing them in the ‘real’ world, which is vital to a child’s physical and neurological development. Children should experience multi-sensory, three-dimensional interactions consistently so that they personally learn to map their world, create meaning and lay down critical neural pathways that will last a lifetime. 

• Fewer parents can be seen actually having conversations with their children at school, in the car, at the shops or in restaurants – the silence is deafening.

Don’t distance yourself 

The trend of parents distancing themselves from their children’s education and leaving it up to schools alone is highly likely to have long term consequences both socially and emotionally on the developing child precisely because they learn by example.

Studies have proven that children whose parents show an interest in their child’s development and get involved with school life (helping out at school events, on committees, attending the school play or sports fixtures etc.) do better at school academically, stay in the school system for longer and are less likely to do drugs, abuse alcohol or fall into bad company. 

What busy parents need to do

Some practical advice for busy working parents who want to build better connections with their children:

• Ditch the cell phone when dropping off or collecting your child from school – connect face-to-face – these snap shot parenting moments are key to linking and connecting with your child both now and in the future. 

• Don’t use DVD’s or electronic devices to ‘mute’ your child in the car – talk, sing and play games together, observe the world beyond the car window and learn together, eg. count the trees, read the traffic signs, identify the makes of vehicles etc. 

• When learning at home use technology to reinforce real, hands on learning rather than replacing it, especially in the formative years of your child’s life; from birth until they turn 9. Keep it real! 

• Remember that play is the language of childhood – make time to play together – often! 

• Re-look at your values, your expectations and priorities, your working hours and employment options. 

• Can one parent be more flexible to afford your child quality time? Childhood comes around but once and cannot be done over again. 

 • Consider joining or creating a forum for working parents in your company where these issues can be raised and tackled. After all, you are bringing up the next generation of talent your company (or another) will, hopefully, one day employ. Surely then, they need for you to do the best parenting job you possibly can. 

The bottom line is, you cannot buy in the parental effect – you have to be it.

You can view my NikkiBushTV interview with Margot by clicking here.