Giving Children Quantity and Quality Time

It is eleven o’clock in the morning on a perfectly ordinary rainy Wednesday. Since 6:30 I have dispatched my husband to work and two daughters to school, cleared up after breakfast, done three loads of wash, vacuumed the living room, and mopped one-half of the kitchen floor. My two preschoolers are standing in the middle of the other half squabbling over the toy grocery cart that each is determined to push alone. This argument has been going on, more or less, for the last hour and a half, and—having exhausted my repertoire of creative problem-solving—I am tempted to put both grocery cart and children out in the rain.

But what is really annoying me at the moment is the radio interview I am listening to: two working mothers complacently sharing notes on the intensive mothering they do when they get home in the evening and on weekends. I lean on my mop and wait patiently for the inevitable, and sure enough it comes. One of them says brightly, “After all, quality time matters so much more than quantity.”

It’s remarkable how easily any mother, no matter what she does, can become defensive. If she works, as many must, she feels she has to prove that her child is losing nothing. If she stays at home, as I am able to do, she feels she has to prove that she is still an intelligent person. Those two earnest ladies on the radio feel compelled to justify their methods of child-raising, but they do so by being dismissive about my method. And with a knee-jerk response, I find myself flinching. Here I am, a college-educated person, mopping floors and toilet-training. Some might say my labor isn’t meaningful. On the contrary. I believe the most meaningful part of a mother’s labor is the time she spends with her children.

Of course there are differences when I compare my day-in, day-out roles with the efforts being discussed on the radio. They talk about taking their children to museums and the zoo, teaching their preschoolers little songs, and having long bedtime chats with their offspring. I do not disparage their efforts. But the luxury of being home is that one can do not only those things, but also spend a lot of other time with the children: keeping the house in order and clean clothes ready, shopping carefully for this week’s specials, driving from school to piano lessons to games to the dentist and home again, trying to fill church responsibilities, and getting breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the table and the debris cleared away afterwards.

True, that’s all quantity time. But it can be quality time as well. If having a dishwasher means not drying dishes, with the accompanying talks mothers and children used to have, there is still potato peeling, pot scrubbing, bread kneading, and silver polishing—all nice repetitive chores that allow time for long conversations and the opportunity to discuss life. We may complain loudly about the hours we spend in the car, but urban traffic and country distances both offer opportunities for heart-to-heart talks with no telephones to interrupt. Those quantity times can become quality times.

I do have to agree that a lot of my routine chores, even with the children present, are accomplished with us simply side by side. I am busy doing things that have to be done, and the children are there just because they are there. I think children learn a lot about being an adult during the times nobody is paying any particular attention to them. I believe that the child who receives all his mother’s attention whenever they are together is developing a distorted idea of what a woman’s life is all about.

Take this Wednesday morning, for example. As I am going about routine activities, my preschoolers, little as they are, are learning that a neat house does not appear by waving a wand. They are learning that playthings have a place where they belong and that among mommy’s priorities are things like cushions on the couch and not on the floor, and dirty clothes put in the laundry basket and not dumped where they were taken off. Apparently these are not easy lessons to learn, judging by the daily necessity to teach them all over again. But I am convinced that the baby trotting after me as I vacuum is gradually developing a preference for cleanliness.

I don’t feel I need to apologize about spending time on the telephone with a friend while my toddler hangs on my leg begging for attention. She’ll get her attention when I hang up; since I’m home all day there’s time to sit down and find out what on earth she wants and give her a tickle and a cuddle, interrupted only by her baby brother who wants some too. But it hasn’t hurt her to wait. She is just beginning to have friends, and somewhere in her developing world view I want her to have the notion that grown-ups have friends as well.

I’m glad I have quantity time to offer my children because their crises and problems are not synchronized with the schedule of a working day. My oldest is just approaching adolescence, but I can see already that as she grows older problems that are urgent when they arise—generally just after school—may have faded later in the afternoon, when a working mother typically is just getting home. Of course a working mother can be responsive and consoling, too, but it’s a lot harder. It doesn’t take great sensitivity to figure out something’s wrong when a tear-stained face greets you at the door, but I worry I would miss some of the very faint signals of distress I hear in the carefully controlled account she gives her father hours later when he comes home. No mother can make everything all better: growing up is hard. But at least I’m there to offer comfort and companionship.

Our children need to learn independence and self-reliance, even in such simple ways as learning to amuse themselves. The child whose mother feels obliged to be a constant entertainment director is, in a way, as crippled as the child who spends hours mesmerized by the television screen. How many of us remember childhood hours lying in the grass watching the clouds drift past, or rolling over to follow an ant darting between the blades? We are so inundated by advice these days on how to challenge a child’s intelligence that we sometimes forget that children need time to discover what they want to learn, and that a child may wish as much as we do for a moment when there is nothing to do next—when he can, if he wishes, do nothing for a few minutes. Even the child hanging on your chair and whining “I’m bored” is, after all, just one more in the long chain of generations of children complaining of boredom. If you are in the middle of making up a grocery list, or mending the trousers, or writing a letter, or reading, there is no reason he can’t wait until you are finished—by which time he will probably have thought up something fascinating to do himself.

There are certainly times when we want to lead and guide our children in choosing their activities, and times when we want to share their activities. But that’s not always. In the quantity of time we have together, there are hours to spend jointly and hours to spend separately.

As women in the Church, we have special responsibilities to teach our children how the gospel forms the pattern and structure of our daily life. When we spend time on the telephone, the child is learning that we have responsibilities to administrate and serve in the Church. The child listening to his mother arrange for dinners to be taken to a mother with a new baby or set up appointments for visiting teaching is learning something about compassionate service and about the sturdy network of sisterhood in the Church. The child listening to his mother pass on the special request for ward members to fast and pray for a family in particular difficulties is learning about faith and about the love we try to share with one another.

The temptation to reserve scripture reading for times when the children are peacefully in bed is enormous, and yet our children need to see us reading the scriptures. They need us to read the scriptures to them, but they also need to see that we as adults read the scriptures for ourselves, not simply to be good examples but to gain spiritual food. The child watching his mother read the scriptures with an absorption so total she doesn’t even notice he is there is learning a lesson as important as many she will teach with her full attention on him.

These are quantity-time lessons that nobody can teach a child as well as a full-time mother. Seeing his mother do these things is much more significant to him than seeing a babysitter do exactly the same things.

Of course, some mothers have no choice but to seek employment outside the home. As President Spencer W. Kimball has said, “The Lord knows … that through circumstances beyond their control, some mothers are faced with the added responsibility of earning a living. These women have God’s blessings for he knows of their anguish and their struggle.” (Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 103.)

Ruth Graham, wife of Billy Graham, says that the real liberation of women would be to be freed from the burden of working outside the home. When there is genuine economic necessity, she says, the children recognize it: “Children are perceptive. They know if their mother is working for an extra color television or because the family cannot do without the money she earns.”

My sister is one of those women who, for the time being, must work. Two years ago, her family made the brave decision that her husband would make a fresh start—with four small sons—and fulfill his dream of going to dental school. It has meant many sacrifices, not the least of which is her going out to work. One of the things she has missed most, she says, is the luxury of quantity time, of unprogrammed hours with her children that she can spend as she pleases. In its place now is tight-packed scheduling, with her husband’s school and part-time jobs jigsawed into her own hours away from home.

“But you know,” she says, “we have something else instead. I need a lot of help from the boys now, and working together with them is becoming our quantity time. Some mothers wait until the kids are in bed and try to do all the washing and cleaning then, but I just can’t. So we work together, and sometimes we talk, and sometimes we don’t. But the boys are learning a lot about what has to be done in running a family, and I guess I’m learning they can carry a lot more responsibility than I ever imagined.”

Fathers, too, can give quantity time to their children. Quantity time with father can be working in the yard together, when no more than a half-dozen words are exchanged in the course of an hour. It can be running errands in the car or on foot—when confidences and ideas can be exchanged, or when father and child travel in companionable silence. Quantity time can be watching good television together. It can be seeing daddy occasionally work at home, when the open briefcase or papers offer his children a suggestion of what he does when he is away at work.

Quantity time is really the child’s glimpse into the life of his parent as a person, the person who existed before the child himself was born, and who will continue to grow and develop after the child has moved into independence.

Working outside the home doesn’t automatically condemn your children to neglect, nor does staying at home guarantee a perfect relationship between you and your children. But we at home do have the freedom of quantity time, of hours for separate growth and development. By taking that freedom, we can help our children learn that love requires time as much as it requires attention.

Quality time, quantity time—I’ll take them both. And be grateful.

[photo] Photography by Jed A. Clark

Beppie Harrison, mother of four, works in the genealogy name extraction program in the Bloomfield Hills (Michigan) Ward.