Wolfers takes aim at recent study claiming parenting time doesn’t matter

April 2, 2015

In his latest New York Times Upshot editorial, Justin Wolfers took aim at a recent study on parenting time by mothers that has garnered widespread national media coverage. The study, “Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend With Children or Adolescents Matter?” published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, found that the time “mothers spent engaged with and accessible to offspring in childhood and adolescence … did not matter for offspring behaviors, emotions, or academics.”

In "Yes, Your Time as a Parent Does Make a Difference," Wolfers contends that the study’s finding doesn’t hold water. “It’s essentially a nonfinding, in that they failed to find correlations that could be reliably discerned from chance,” he wrote.

Wolfers’ main contention with the study was its flawed measure of parental input. “The study does not measure how much time parents typically spend with their children. Instead, it measures how much time each parent spends with children on only two particular days — one a weekday and the other a weekend day.”

Wolfers shared a personal parenting anecdote to illustrate how the authors’ failure to accurately capture parental input likely impacted their findings: "Whether you are categorized as an intensive or a distant parent depends largely on which days of the week you happened to be surveyed. For instance, I began this week by taking a couple of days off to travel with the children to Disneyworld. A survey asking about Sunday or Monday would categorize me as a very intense parent who spent every waking moment engaged with my children. But today, I’m back at work and am unlikely to see them until late. And so a survey asking instead about today would categorize me as an absentee parent. The reality is that neither is accurate. It is no surprise that a measure that does such a poor job in capturing my parenting input would be barely related to my children’s outcomes."

Wolfers warned against parents relying on misleading research to justify devoting less time to parenting and more time for themselves. He instead encouraged that decisions be informed by the broader set of more reliable studies that suggest “that when parents spend high-quality time with their children, their children are more likely to succeed,” according to developmental psychologist and University of Chicago professor of public policy Ariel Kalil, whom Wolfers consulted for the piece.

Justin Wolfers is a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan and a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics.