Work-family balance is a hot topic these days, and it’s so much easier to talk about it than it is to achieve it. The current discussion seems to focus mostly on families with infants and small children at home, with people assuming that older kids can entertain themselves and do not need – or want – too much attention from parents, but is that really true?
It’s not always easy to decide how to create meaningful time with adolescents, or even what counts as quality time these days. A study just published in the February 2013 Journal of Marriage and Family called Family Time Activities and Adolescents’ Emotional Well Being revisited questions posed in recent studies and then collected data to discern which activities contribute most to adolescents’ well-being. The not-so-shocking conclusion that what we choose to do with our kids is as important as the time we spend with them; the conventional wisdom that family dinners together magically makes for well-adjusted kids is not quite that cut and dried. Yes, the family meal is important, especially if Dad is home, but having fun with our kids – doing something that counts as leisure time for all of us – is likely the most important thing we can do. In short, the data show that doing chores together doesn’t fully count toward family time. As good as all that fresh air may be for us, raking the yard as a family doesn’t contribute as much to our teens’ emotional well-being as playing a game or talking about books (no required reading!) or watching a movie with them. That doesn’t mean we can’t do all of those things, but don’t discount the value of pure fun for everyone.
Another interesting conclusion in the study was that, while we could predict that homework time together doesn’t count for quality time, the same goes for most school-related activities, including extra curricular pursuits:
“The results further revealed that engaging in family productive activities, most of which consist of school-related and extracurricular activities, was associated with lower well-being among adolescents. Teens reported lower positive affect and engagement when they spent time in productive activities with, as opposed to without, their father or with both parents present. They also reported feeling less engaged when they spent time on this type of activity in the company of their mother only. A possible explanation relates to the obligatory and demanding nature of productive activities. Adolescents may feel pressured by their parents, for example, when they do homework or attend school-related events with them, because these activities are highly valued by parents and not doing well in these contexts can have severe implications for teens’ educational and occupational prospects (Lareau, 2003). Teens may feel anxious about not measuring up to their parents’ expectations and may resent parental judgment and criticism. This does not mean that productive activities are not beneficial to teens’ well-being; in fact, productive activities may contribute to other important outcomes not examined in this study, most notably school achievement.” Again, just because we are spending time with our children accomplishing important goals, their emotional well-being is not assured by the mere fact of our attention – showing up for the game or the play is important, but it’s not enough. Our kids are smart enough to know the difference between “have to” and “want to,” and when we look back at our own lives, many of our most cherished family memories come from the latter category.
And even though it seems like a no-brainer that we need to have fun with our teens, it often takes some work on our part to let go of our penchant for multi-tasking and appreciate the joy of simply being together at home. Sometimes the most teachable moments are the ones in which we are not trying to teach anything.