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Deprived of parent time? Not most kids

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 2000

Houses may be messier and parents may be sleepier, but that's a good sign for kids.

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Across America, time spent in the company of children has become the holy grail of working parents - and it appears to be well within their grasp. By curtailing everything from shut-eye to volunteer work to vacuuming, most moms and dads today are finding ways to put kids first, perhaps more consciously than in earlier eras.

"Anytime I'm not working, I'm with my kids," says Pamela Alexander, a manager at Ford Motor Co. in Deerborn, Mich. To have more hours with their two girls, she and her husband hire out the housecleaning and, instead of giving time to charities, "I write big checks," she says.

With dual-income families now the norm, spending time with children requires more creativity than it did during the days of "Ozzie and Harriet." Solutions vary - from staggered job schedules, to one parent quitting work for a time, to dads picking up more of the child-rearing responsibility.

"We're in the midst of an evolution, not a revolution," says James Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute in New York.

For all their efforts, most parents are managing to give kids enough attention. Almost 7 in 10 children ages 8 to 18 surveyed said they get enough time with their working parents, according to research by Ellen Galinsky in her book "Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents."

"It's often a given that it's very selfish, greedy parents who sacrifice their children at the altar of their own materialism," says Ms. Galinsky, who heads the Families and Work Institute. But parents' perceptions that they need more time with kids differs from what children actually think, she says.

Changes in technology and lifestyle patterns have certainly helped parents eke out more family time. Fast food and microwaves, for example, offer short cuts for meal preparation. Children are also home less often than they used to be, being pulled out for activities like preschool, summer camp, and swimming lessons. Couples today also have fewer children than did their counterparts of recent decades, allowing for more parental "face time" per child.

Thanks to such changes, mothers today spend about the same amount of time with their children as mothers did in the 1960s, according to new findings by Suzanne Bianchi, a sociologist at the University of Maryland in College Park. In 1998, women spent 5.8 waking hours with their children each day, versus 5.6 hours for mothers in 1965. Fathers did even better - increasing their time from 2.7 hours per day in 1965 to 4 hours in 1998.

The father factor

Indeed, dads are the resource parents are drawing on most often to make up for the time women are spending at the office. Perhaps as a result, attitudes about men's role in the family are gradually changing.

"When fathers define success today, it's no longer just in terms of being a breadwinner. It means being involved with the kids as well," says Dr. Levine, author of "Working Fathers."

Many mothers say their husbands help with everything from folding laundry to picking up kids after school. Fathers' share of housework has increased in recent years, too, with men taking over some of the duties (although not half of them) from moms - both working and nonworking.

Luvie Myers, a stay-at-home mom in Winnetka, Ill., says her husband can more easily leave work for a family event than a father could have in her parents' era. "Spending time with family is an excuse at work that people are willing to accept," she says.

But workplaces vary dramatically in their tolerance of family needs - and parents must adapt accordingly. Ford's Ms. Alexander says she sees few couples like hers, in which both parents are in management and work full time.

She and her husband share the duties - and it's not a given that she'll be the one to take care of any crisis with the children.