Robert Evans, Ed.D.

One of the great myths of parenting is Quality Time, the idea that childrearing can be handled in short doses of positive interaction.  We may be too busy to spend much time with our children, so this theory goes, but it’s alright if that time is full of high quality contact.  Unfortunately, this rarely works, in good part because children, by their very nature, provoke large quantities of low quality time.

I learned this lesson the hard way.  Years ago, back when the Celtics were still a powerhouse, I kept hearing that I was the only father who never took his children to a Celtics game.  One Wednesday, when I was offered four tickets, I bought them despite the cost and even though the game was on a school night and my younger son was in third grade.

The tickets turned out to be available because the opponents were terrible.  The Celtics blew them out and, with four minutes left to play, I was ready to join the fans who were leaving.  My son demanded to stay to the end.  We ended up with me dragging him away as he clutched at the railing in front of him.  

When we got home at 10:00 p.m. I said, “Bedtime.”  

He said, “I’m hungry.”  

“Listen,” I told him, “we ate before we left, you had two big pretzels and a hotdog.  It’s 10:00 on a school night. Upstairs.”  

He looked at me and said—I’ve never let him forget this—“You never do what I want!”  There may be many things to do with a child in such a moment, but having a high quality interaction is not among them.

I think there are several lessons here.  This first is that our 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.  How else will they know what to do when their own children exasperate them?  (When you have really had it with your kids, whose tone of voice do you use, your mother’s or your father’s?)  

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.

We also need to remember that children learn from everything we say and do.  We are teaching them all the time, not just when we think we’re teaching them.  We need to think about the example we’re setting, not just the message we’re preaching.  

At the Human Relations Service, we treat many children who are struggling with problems that affect their psychological and social development.  In most cases their parents are trying hard to raise them well, but often they themselves are swamped, busy, overworked, and stressed.  They lack the time to just “be” with their children, and they are hoping that somehow parenting can be concentrated into good moments, but they end up with the opposite of what they seek.

Our experience is that children need all sorts of time with parents, both high quality and low, structured and unstructured.  A lack of parental attention contributes to many of the common behavior and academic problems that affect children.  “All sorts of time” does not necessarily mean “huge amounts.”  For example, small increases in time spent enjoying an activity together can make a big difference in a parent-child relationship.  Focussing on what you treasure about your child, not just how she needs to improve, or how she compares to other kids also helps.  When we work with parents, we try to help them identify and increase the interactions with their children that work well.  Sometimes, a child’s problems are more serious and may require extensive help.  That’s in part why agencies like ours exist.  But even then the problem is likely to be, as we say, something that will improve with time.

Dr. Evans, a psychologist, is the Director of HRS.  This article is adapted from his book, Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope with The Crisis in Childrearing.