Every family has its private jokes, its small routines and riffs that never fail to produce a laugh. One of my favorites as a child involved an imaginary holiday. When the conversation turned to Mother's Day or Father's Day, my sister and I would sometimes ask our parents in mock innocence, "When is Children's Day?"
"Every day is Children's Day," they would reply, teasing us back. They were right, at least within the bounds of the families we knew. Who needed a red-letter date on the calendar to celebrate a daily pattern of parental devotion?
Decades later, Congress did create a National Children's Day. And in 2001 another event, National KidsDay, made its first modest appearance in headlines, if not yet on calendars. Sponsored by Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the children's charity KidsPeace, it encourages families to honor children by spending meaningful time with them. This Sunday marks the third observance.
Sponsors define meaningful time as "time spent between adults and children that both consider engaging, important, and enjoyable." But according to 1,000 respondents who took part in a random national survey on the subject, that kind of togetherness remains a challenge for many American families.
The survey, being released Wednesday in preparation for National KidsDay, suggests that millions of adults "do not have the time, the internal capability, or external resources to do as much for their children as they want." Participants give American parents "shockingly low" grades for their efforts and a "disturbingly low" score for the state of children's health and happiness. They rate themselves higher than other parents, but still express concern that they spend too little meaningful time with children.
"Worried and anxious" is the way C.T. O'Donnell II, president of KidsPeace, describes many American parents. Working parents also use another furrowed-brow word, "guilty," when they talk about how competing priorities keep them from spending more time as a family.
But how much time is enough? In the 1980s, the phrase "quality time" became the guilt-soothing mantra of busy parents. Yet many eventually realized that just as two bites of the best-quality steak won't satisfy physical hunger, a few moments of even the best quality time can't satisfy a child's emotional hunger for connectionswith parents. Mercifully, "quality time" faded away.
Now the new ideal is "meaningful time." To achieve that, Mr. O'Donnell suggests that some parents may need to reorder their priorities. Others need to find creative ways to involve children in their busy lives and to involve themselves in children's busy lives. Although no one has a single solution to all the challenges children face, he calls this "the first best place to start."
Meaningful time is a worthy goal. But could the pursuit of it simply ratchet up the level of parental guilt? And what counts as meaningful? Driving a son or daughter to soccer practice - a humdrum activity - might not qualify as meaningful. But as parent and child ride along, a meaningful conversation could develop.
Never, it seems, have parents been expected to do more for their children. At the same time, never have they been harder on themselves in feeling they should do even more. Back when my parents joked about that nonexistent Children's Day, their generation didn't describe time with children as "quality" or "meaningful." Time together was time together, with some moments more enjoyable than others.
As families observe National KidsDay on Sunday, parents could take a cue from those earlier generations, who might offer this advice: Celebrate the holiday and spend as much time together as you can. But also give yourselves credit for all the things you do with and for your children, and cancel the guilt trip.