THE other day a working mother in the Chicago area told Bernice Weissbourd, head of a local family-support group, that she'd scheduled 6:30 to 7:30 as ''quality time'' for her child.
Sometimes, however, her child didn't seem to want her to play at that time. ''What should I do?'' she asked.
That question gets right to the issue of whether the concept of ''quality time'' is truly serving children and, possibly, unduly burdening parents.
''I don't even like the word 'time.' It's not time that's at issue here, but the quality of the child's life,'' says Mrs. Weissbourd. ''Quality time for me doesn't mean doing a special project with the child, but being available for that child if he comes to show you a tower of blocks he's built or asks you to help him build another,'' she says.
Dr. Alison Clarke-Stewart, an education professor at the University of California at Irvine, was perhaps the first to describe quality time in print in the early 1970s. She speaks of the myth that ''it's quality, not quantity'' of time that counts between parents and children. The mother who called Mrs. Weissbourd, says Dr. Clarke-Stewart, thought that such quality could be scheduled and doled out ''like ice cream.''
And if that mother seemed confused over what ''quality time'' means, consider how the experts define it. It has been construed as everything from the absolute , admiring attention parents are supposed to give children, to ''any time you spend with your child, as long as it's not negative,'' says one expert. It's a term that washed in on the tidal wave of women returning to the job market. Its purpose, supposedly, is to soothe guilt pangs over leaving children in nonparental care.
Guided by such child-rearing experts, parents are made to feel that (1) they should serve as perfect role models to their children 24 hours each day; (2) they really don't need to tune into their children more than about ''15 minutes per day, per child''; (3) every experience they have with their children must be a positive one, with the child's desires and action taking precedence over everything else; or (4) the child benefits by learning that he's not the only one in the world with needs and expectations.
''I think (the concept of quality time) is used to validate women returning to work,'' says Dr. Clarke-Stewart. ''And that's wrong. There are many perfectly valid reasons for women to go back to work. They shouldn't have to tell themselves, 'It's the quality, not the quantity that counts,' '' says the professor, a single mother to her three-year-old son, Christopher.
Staying at home full time with your child doesn't guarantee a high quality childhood either, Mrs. Weissbourd points out, saying that ''if you're there but you're tuning your child out or being very critical of your child, that's not quality.''
Says Karen Schlenker, a farm wife in Minnesota, ''The fact is that there's a heck of a lot to do if you stay home. But still, child rearing is often an afterthought and only begrudgingly given. That's still the most important and least recognized part - it's tough, undefined, maybe undefinable, and nonstop.''
Regardless of whether a parent is available for some or all of the day, the question of time spent with the child should not be ''quality or quantity,'' says Dr. Clarke-Stewart, ''but the quantity of that quality.'' The question for her is not ''how much time are you as a parent giving your child,'' but how much quality that child is getting throughout the day from everyone in his life, she thinks. ''What's the good of giving 30 minutes of ice cream to a child who is starving?'' she asks, saying that parents should ensure that their children also get quality time from whoever takes care of them during the day.
For Mrs. Weissbourd, that's begging the question of quality time. ''The essence is the relationship between the child and parent. Of course, the child should get good care from the day-care center - that's crucial. But the question is, what kind of relationship is developing between the parent and child?
''That's a beautiful thing that happens between parent and child that takes time,'' says Mrs. Weissbourd, a new grandmother to twins, ''but it's not dependent on setting aside 15 minutes or two hours a day of quality time. It comes from putting the child first, letting the child know you're there and you love him.''
She also points out that such a relationship is not built only ''from the child seeing the parent being pleasant and happy all the time, but from the child watching the parent go through low days and frustrations, and work them through.''
Brenna Dean, who teaches a course on quality time to parents in the Washington, D.C., area called ''Prime-time Parenting,'' thinks that time spent with children can be loosely lumped into three categories: quality time, empty time, or negative time. Empty time, as she defines it, is when ''the parent and child may be in the same room together, but they're not tuned into each other or involved with each other.'' With negative time, the parent and child are involved, ''but it's in a critical, destructive way.''
She thinks parents - particularly working parents - should take advantage of that empty time to give quality by ''tuning in to the child as soon as he presents himself.'' This does not equate with giving the child exactly what he wants, but making sure the child knows you understand his statement or request and are considering it, she says. ''The whole key is listening, watching the behavior, and seeing what's going on with the child,'' she thinks.
And, while she emphasizes that not everything parents and children do together has to be ''a bell-ringer episode that they'll remember years later,'' she thinks parents can enhance the time they spend with their children by:
* Making parenting an equal-status career between parents. Let both parents be involved, not only with the child, but with preparations for parent/child activities. Fathers and mothers both should pour the glue, select the books from the library, and buy the basketball, as well as play piggyback or Monopoly with their child, she says.
* Taking advantage of usually wasted time. She gives the example of the harried mother who comes home from work and needs to put dinner on the table in 15 minutes so they'll have time to make the Scout meeting. ''She certainly doesn't seem to have time to devote to the kids right then. But she can shout out, 'Boy, I sure need a hug right now - does anyone have a hug for me?' and spend two minutes hugging and hearing about her kids' day,'' she says.
Mrs. Weissbourd adds to this, saying that ''it's not trying to make time to spend exclusively with your child right after work. It's how you pick that child up from the day-care center, how you two go through the grocery store together, talking to each other and making your selections, how you share in preparing the dinner - that's quality time.''
* Scheduling time together. Ms. Dean says she's worked with a number of upwardly mobile couples with full-time careers who, in an effort to spend more time with their children, have taken to scheduling parent/child time on their calendars. Even those who aren't top-loaded with outside activities often need to be aware of family members' plans, Ms. Dean points out, ''so they can say, 'Let's keep Tuesday and Thursday evening clear this week for family dinner,' or 'Sunday afternoon looks pretty clear - let's go for a hike that day.' ''
* Emphasizing prime times. Ms. Dean says there are a number of special times when a parent's attention can have big impact - at performances (by which she means everything from a piano recital to an especially nice finger painting), right before bedtime (''unless you've blown it that evening, and everyone's too tired and crabby''), and when parent and child are doing something mutually enjoyable - if they both like to skate, for example, or read books together. ''I put cuddling into this category, too,'' says Dr. Clarke-Stewart, who thinks that even watching TV together (''if you talk about it together'') can be a ''tummy-warming experience.''