Published on 09 Oct 2023

Being present matters when it comes to time with the kids

It is not quality time with family if you are still checking your mobile phone

When it comes to spending time with the kids, how much time is enough?

This question is uncomfortable for many parents. It often results in pangs of parental guilt, where mums or dads feel they do not live up to their own expectations.

The common answer to such a question is that it is not the quantity of time spent that matters, but the quality of time.

There is a school of thought that believes that if kids enjoy their parent's undivided attention, they will need less of their parent's time to form an emotional connection.

The concept is highly attractive to busy parents who have many competing priorities.

As a father of two, I have relied on the quality-time logic many times as my kids were growing up. I rationalised that if I spent quality time with them, the amount of time would not matter as much.

But in reality, when I was in charge of the kids, I would try to give them my undivided attention – up until the first text message or call came through.

I am unable to confirm or deny if some of my "quality time" with the kids was spent letting them watch a show on the television, while I caught up on my e-mail.

Similarly, my kids might or might not have had extended computer game time as I took conference calls in the next room. After such periods of "quality time", I often felt like a fraud. Like the person who goes to the gym and hogs a machine, but instead of exercising, he or she is just spending the time on the phone.

The true benefit to health is minimal because the primary activity during the session was to work the fingers, and not the heart.

It appears that I might not be the only father who has spent less time raising the kids than the wife.

A report on National University of Singapore (NUS) Professor Jean Yeung's Singapore Longitudinal Early Development Study in 2020 found that mothers spent almost double the amount of time with the children than fathers. The Ministry of Education-funded study on children's early childhood development found that mothers spent, on average, three hours and 51 minutes with their children on weekdays, while fathers spent only one hour and 44 minutes. The survey conducted by the NUS Centre for Family and Population Research polled 5,021 children aged up to six, together with their primary caregivers. It found that fathers record the lowest time spent with their kids in caregiving and achievement-oriented activities such as reading, homework or extra-curricular lessons. Interestingly, the amount of time fathers spent with their kids did not vary with whether the mother worked or not.

Prof Yeung's study noted the second shift that women, like my wife, take on in raising kids.   The three hours and 51 minutes identified in the study work out to a part-time job, in addition to my wife's full-time job. Activities in her second shift include cooking, cleaning, reading to the kids and getting them to sleep. My wife never complained about being our kids' primary caregiver, even during the period when she and the children were in Singapore, and my job was based in the United States. Then, she was both mother and father. During one session when I was spending "quality time" with the kids at a neighbourhood playground, one of my sons dashed up to me and grabbed my phone. Refusing to give it back, he asked me pointedly what was so interesting on my phone that I was more engrossed in it than in spending time with him. I tried to explain to him the concept of quality time over the quantity of time. I stopped after a few moments when I realised that I could fool myself, but I could not fool him. I could rationalise as much as I wanted, but for him, it boiled down to being present.

The poignancy of the interaction stuck in my mind for several weeks.

I realised that since my father died when I was seven, I did not experience what it means to be a present dad. My father was absent because he died. I was absent because of my choices. I decided to learn to be a better father.

It occurred to me that, to drive a car, you have to study for and pass a driving test, but to become a father, which is far more consequential, there are no requirements. Heading to the library, I was surprised that there were not many books on fathering available. As a substitute, I found the resources from the Dads For Life movement in Singapore and the National Fatherhood Initiative in the US useful and relevant. Along the way, I was blessed to have other fathers come alongside me to encourage and challenge me to spend adequate time with my boys engaged in meaningful activities together.

Sacrifice and self-care

I started playing golf a few years before my elder son was born. And I would spend one to two half-days playing 18 holes of golf each week. I found the game fascinating and multifaceted. Being out in wide open spaces for a few hours was relaxing after a tough week at work. In order to carve out more time to spend with the kids, I decided to give up the sport. I found alternative ways to get my weekly exercise, like going to the gym and jogging. Both activities took up far less time than golf. Fathers do need to take the time to exercise and stay healthy to be around for their kids as they grow up.

Scheduling time with the kids

The thing that probably helped me the most was to schedule time with the kids in my calendar. The discipline of doing so made it clear to me when the activity starts and stops, rather than have it open-ended.

Somehow, this made it easier to be disciplined about putting the phone down and fully engaging with the kids.

In my mind, I told myself that I would do the same for an important meeting, and that my kids were more important to me than any meeting.

The great thing about scheduling these sessions is that, afterwards, there is a chance to catch up on messages and calls.

When I really engaged with my kids during the scheduled time, they would be happy to go back to their toys and books and leave me to attend to my messages.

The discipline of blocking out time with the kids on the calendar also made it easier to make clear to supervisors at work that I had a prior commitment in the evening or over a weekend.

To top it off, I asked my sons to keep me accountable and call me out if they did not feel that I was present during our time together.

So how did it work out? Did I make mistakes over the years? Of course. In fact, my sons still call me out when I am on the phone during family time, even today.

So how much time is enough? Is it quality time or quantity of time that kids need?

For me, the only answer is to look into the eyes of the kids and ask them the question. That answer is the only one that matters.

Source : The Business Times

Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct professor at Nanyang Business School.