The following contribution about responsible parenting to raise happiness is © 2010 by Christine Carter, Ph.D. who kindly agreed to have her article posted on AmAreWay.

I recently read happiness blogger Gretchen Rubin’s interview with Laura Vanderkam, author of the new book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.  I was particularly struck by this statement by Vanderkam: “I wish people wouldn’t say ‘I don’t have time to do X, Y or Z.’ Instead, we should say ‘I won’t do X, Y or Z because it’s not a priority.’”

This got me wondering: When I elect to work late, am I sending the message to my kids that they’re less of a priority to me than my job? I won’t spend time with you tonight, honey, because, frankly, my work is more important.

Sometimes our work has to be more important. We don’t want to starve, right?  But other times, well, it’s not so clear—our choices might be guided less by necessity than by a lack of discipline or perhaps, yes, misplaced priorities.

I know the whole quality vs. quantity time thing is a working-parent cliché.  But this debate persists in my mind —is a wee bit of “quality time” good enough?—a decade after it began for me.  How much work is too much?  Is it vain to think that more time with me is better? How much time do my kids really need at home with me—and would some of this time be better spent in a dance class or playing soccer or just running around in the yard while I type away on my laptop?  How does this change as kids get older? I just had lunch with a mom who quit work for the first time since she had children – because she felt her teenagers needed more time with her.  Isn’t that when they are supposed to be more independent?

When I was in graduate school—and had an infant and toddler—I was deeply reassured by Ellen Galinsky’s 1999 book Ask the Children: The Breakthrough Study that Reveals How to Succeed at Work and Parenting.  The vast majority of kids in her study, third through twelfth graders, didn’t wish for more time with their working parents.  Instead, about a third of them wished that their parents, particularly their mothers, would be less tired and stressed by work.

As I reread the study now, several other findings strike me as still-very-useful for parents grappling with how much time to spend with their children, whether or not they are working outside of the home.

(1) Don’t rush kids. Children are far more likely to say their parents make them “feel important and loved” if their time with them is calm and unhurried.  (Dang. This isn’t my strength.)

(2) Quantity matters. The fact that most kids don’t wish for more time with their parents means that most parents are already getting this right.  But let’s not kid ourselves: “Children who spend more time with their mothers and fathers on workdays and nonworkdays grade their parents higher, feel their parents are more successful at managing work and family responsibilities, and see their parents as putting their families first,” writes Galinsky.

(3) Focus is the most important thing. I’ll just let Galinsky say it: “When children feel that their mothers and fathers can focus on them, they are much more likely to feel that their parents manage their work and family responsibilities successfully and put their families before their work, and they give their parents much higher marks for all of the parenting skills we examined.  Although very few children believe that their parents have trouble paying attention to them, those who do see their mothers and their fathers in an extremely negative light.”

This focus thing—which I see as being present—is the bull’s eye, the sweet spot of parenting.  Sure, kids need time to just hang around with us while we check our email or cook dinner and they read or do their homework.  But they also need us to focus on them a little bit each day, to be totally present with them.  Dan Siegel, MD and author of Mindsight, explains why:

When parents and children align their focus on each other, there is a neurobiological process…that is activated.  This process, which mediates a sense of well-being, joy and elation, is at the heart of emotional attunement when one person feels “felt” and understood by the other person.  This form of contingent communication is at the heart of developing secure attachments.  It begins in infancy and continues throughout the life span.

This presence, this focus, is what really matters.  It does require a quantity of time to be present.  And this presence makes for very high quality time.

Easier said than done.  But this is the heart of mindful parenting, and it allows us to stop judging ourselves.  When we parent mindfully, we are simply taking in what is in the here and now, without judgment.  We are aware of our own moods, and those of our children.  We cease our relentless planning and our relentless doing.

This means, for me, that I need to stop multi-tasking with my kids.  I am always doing something; actually, usually I’m both doing AND planning for the next thing.  Which means I’m not focused.  There is the egregious not-present, as when during our family dinner I’m checking something else off my list: I wolf my food down, then bring a stack of mail to open while my slow-eating-children finish.

There is also the subtle-not-focused: When walking the kids back from the park, I keep telling them to pipe down so that I can hear my own thoughts.  I want the space to worry about whatever I’m working out in my head, without the bickering masses bugging me.  If I were focused and present, I’d use the time for a moment of play, or at the very least, a moment of mindfulness.

This all brings me back to the very important idea of how happiness is related to the “non-instrumental” activities in our lives, those things we do for no reason other than our own enjoyment.  I’ve blogged before about how a life without “non-instrumental” activities is a life full of anxiety and devoid of joy.  Turns out that parenting is the same: When our parenting is all instrumental—just accomplishing what needs to get done—we risk not just our own but our children’s happiness.

What do you need to do to be able to focus on your children more easily?  What times of the day does this come without effort? (For me, it is bedtime.  I love to read with my children.)  What small, turtle-step towards change can you make toward parenting more mindfully?

Key Reference:

Galinsky, Ellen, 1999.  Ask the Children: The Breakthrough Study That Reveals How to Succeed at Work and Parenting (New York: Quill)

© 2010 Christine Carter, Ph.D. who kindly agreed to have her article posted on AmAreWay. Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center best known for her science-based parenting advice. She is the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and she teaches an online parenting class for a global audience.

You can follow her Greater Good blog at www.GreaterGoodParents.com, and learn more about her parenting classes by going to www.raisinghappiness.com.

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