One Reason to Let Go of Mom Guilt

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Larry Forthun, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

Show me a mom who sometimes feels guilty, and I’ll show you….well, every mother I know, including myself. This maternal emotion often pops up when it comes to the question of time with children: that is, not having enough of it. Working moms may feel this most acutely, but even stay-at-home moms may worry that they’re not devoting enough “quality time” to their kids.

How Crucial is Time with Mom?

To some, it may seem self-evident that children do best when they spend as much time as possible with parents, rather than other caregivers. Many seem to think that time with mom, in particular, is key, especially for younger children. But do we have much hard evidence that this is really true? The answer, surprisingly, is no. Meanwhile, moms may feel stressed and anxious about these expectations, causing their own well-being to suffer.

A Closer Look

In a recent study, researchers looked more carefully at the question of how the amount time children spend with their mothers relates to their behavior, emotional well-being, and academic progress. The researchers looked both at time mothers spent being “accessible to” their children (in the same physical area, but not necessarily doing something with them) and time spent “actively engaged” with them (for instance, playing with them, cooking with them, or watching TV with them). They also looked at fathers’ time with children, and the time that both parents spent together with their kids.

Does the Number of Hours Matter?

After separating out the effects of important factors like income, parental education, and family structure, the researchers found no association between the number of hours mothers spent with their young kids (ages 3-11) and how children this age were faring. Children from wealthier families, two-parent families, and more educated families were doing better overall, but this was not connected to the number of hours mothers spent with them.

Some Small Effects For Teens

When it came to teens, the researchers did find one association: teens whose mothers spent more time actively engaged in activities with them were very slightly less likely to be involved in delinquent activities, like vandalism or fighting. However, this effect was really small.

The amount of time kids and teens spent alone with dads didn’t seem to improve outcomes, either. However, when teens spent time actively engaging with both parents together, it did seem to make a difference. More time with mom and dad was linked to modestly better academic performance, fewer behavioral problems, and less delinquent behavior.

A More Balanced Viewpoint

So what can we make of all this, as parents? First of all, it may be past time to let go of some of that “mom guilt” regarding the amount of time we spend solo with our kids. This isn’t to say, of course, that parental time doesn’t matter —this study doesn’t show that—but it does hint at the possibility that sheer number of hours may not be the central factor some believe it to be.

However, these findings do modestly support the value of hands-on family time with both parents, at least for teens. In the end, a more balanced approach to the issue of time spent with mom, dad, and the whole family throughout a child’s lifespan is likely to benefit everyone.


Milkie, M. A., Nomaguchi, K. M., & Denny, K. E. (2015). Does the amount of time mothers spend with children or adolescents matter? Journal of Marriage and Family, 77, 355-372.

Photo Credits: ULTRA F/Digital Vision/Thinkstock


Posted: March 30, 2015

Category: Relationships & Family, Work & Life
Tags: Mental Health, Parenting

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