Study finds 'intensive mothering' has no bearing on child's positive outcome

A recent study is creating a stir, as it argues that quantity of time has no bearing on a child’s positive outcome.
A recent study is creating a stir, as it argues that quantity of time has no bearing on a child’s positive outcome.

It’s not uncommon for American mothers to spend lots of time with their young children. After all, for kids to become well-adjusted, successful adults, moms must give them inordinate blocks of time, right?

Not according to the findings of new research published in the April issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

The study — “Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend with Children or Adolescents Matter?” — is creating a stir, as it argues that quantity of time has no bearing on a child’s positive outcome.

“We have been getting many reactions,” said Kei Nomaguchi, a researcher on the study and an associate professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University. “Working mothers told us that it was a relief to know that the amount of time does not matter because they are always stressed out about time with their children. Mothers who chose to stay home with their children are not quite happy with our findings.”

Kara Staunton, a Toledo area working mother of two boys, ages 7 and 3, refused to criticize stay-at-home moms. However, she said it’s impractical for those moms to be engaged every minute with their children.

“Even if you do stay home, there will be a lot of moments you make the children entertain themselves because there are other things you have to do,” said Ms. Staunton, a customer care representative at a health insurance company.

Ms. Staunton took a substantial pay decrease when she changed career paths, leaving the field of retail management for one with more stable hours. She made that sacrifice so that she could have more time with her children and be home to put them to bed, help with homework, and take part in other activities. She also notes one of the pluses of daycare.

“It helps children develop social skills that are important for their school years,” she said.

Ms. Nomaguchi and the other research sociologists, Melissa Milkie of the University of Toronto and Kathleen Denny of the University of Maryland, used the findings in a 1997 study that examined the relationship between moms’ time with their 3 to 11-year-olds and their outcomes. They looked again in 2002 when those youngsters were ages 12 and 18. There were 1,600 children in the first group and 800 in the second.

Toledo area resident Lauren Jones said that the loss of her first child more than two years ago and the time demands of being a teacher compelled her to stay home with her now 11-month-old son. For her, the amount of time with him, even if she is not engaged in an activity with him, is as important as quality time.

“I didn't want to lose time with this child,” said Mrs. Jones, who had planned to return to teaching high school Spanish following her first child's birth. However, her loss “made me look at the time I invested in my job and how much time I [would have] invested in my child, because even as a teacher, I didn't get to leave work at work. I didn't want to take that time for granted.”

The researchers separated whether a mother’s time was “accessible,” meaning she was present but not involved in the child’s activity, or “engaged,” when she was involved with a child. They found no relationship between mothers’ time and those outcomes, Ms. Nomaguchi said.

“In some sense I was a little surprised,” she said, adding that consistent among the findings was that a mother’s distress resulted in poor outcomes in their children. Parental stress adversely affected the children’s mental health and academic performance, Ms. Nomaguchi said, and resulted in “even lower math scores.”

Stay-at-home moms experience the same pressure about time spent with their children.

“They are also stressed out because they have a very high standard in terms of how much time they should spend with their children,” she added.

Ms. Nomaguchi, who is from Japan and has been in the United States almost two decades, referred to “intensive mothering,” a type of parenting that seems to have started in the 1980s and early 1990s. At the time that approach was contradictory, she said, as it appeared when women had gained a significant foothold in the labor force.

Not every American embraces the demand for moms to intensively mother and to stay home to focus on child rearing.

“Many sociology studies do show that this is more in the Caucasian culture, where there is a strong belief that the mothers should stay home and focus on raising their children.”

Nevertheless, that view of mothering is expanding, she said.

“It is spreading to other racial ethnic groups too as an ideal,” Ms. Nomaguchi said. “If we look at the generations, the younger generation is really affected by this intensive mothering ideology compared to maybe two generations ago.”

The result of so much time given to children is that parents get short-changed, as their leisure, sleep, and personal care time is whittled away with their youngsters. If this study suggests anything, she said, the message for moms is to relax.

“We are not saying spending time with children is not important. We are not saying stop spending time with their children,” said Ms. Nomaguchi, who along with her fellow researchers is a mother.

In the end, researchers say the study found positives for both stay-at-home and workforce moms: The engagement time mothers spend with their teenagers results in less delinquent behavior among them.

That surprised Ms. Nomaguchi, mostly because the emphasis is for younger children to spend more time with their parents.

Here’s another nugget revealed in the study:

“Our research shows that social statuses or resources, like mothers’ education or income, those factors are more important and are related to children’s outcome,” she said.

Contact Rose Russell at: or 419-724-6178.