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Creating a children’s crisis to sell us a product

February 7th, 2007

Dr Petra

If you’re a parent and you’ve been paying attention to the news today you might be a bit worried. Plenty of coverage is telling you that you simply don’t spend enough time with your children. It seems parents would rather watch TV or do housework than talk to their kids and as a result children are not developing key language skills.

As if parents didn’t have enough to worry about already.

The research, based on a survey (of course) asked 1000 parents about communication and found 50% spent more than two hours per day watching TV and 36% spent more than two hours per day on chores. Only 32% spent the same amount of time talking to their kids.

Okay, so let’s look at this for a second. There’s a difference between spending a couple of hours a day watching television or doing household chores once your kids are in bed, or if you’re in a household where one parent/carer is doing tasks or watching TV whilst the other parent/relative or siblings are interacting with a child. This survey doesn’t make it clear whether people are spending time on tasks when their kids are around or when they’re in bed or busy doing something else.

It’s also confusing about the division of time described by the survey. It seems to be saying that people spend more time on TV and chores than being with their kids, but if that’s the case the data doesn’t add up (50% of people watch TV + 36% people doing chores + 32% of people talking to kids makes 118%). So it’s unclear how the survey asked about people’s spare time activities and how they analysed the answers.

Predictably the survey data shows regional variations (a trick used by PR companies to guarantee regional press coverage). From this we know that only 24% of Londoners chatted to their kids compared with 49% of adults in Wales. Whether this is because Welsh people are chatterboxes or Londoners are very busy isn’t clear although that’s the stereotyped image the survey’s presenting.

Let’s take the ‘watching television’ example from this survey. ‘Watching TV’ might mean sitting down engrossed in your favourite soap opera whilst the kids run riot elsewhere in the home, or it could be watching a children’s programme with your child and talking about it, or it might mean the television is on in the background whilst you and your family get on with other tasks. Confusingly for this research your average busy parent may have the television on (watching TV) be making dinner (household chores) and be talking to their kids at the same time.

What isn’t made clear is that quality of chat time is as important as quantity. Parents are being criticised for not talking enough to their kids as though there’s a designated ‘chat time’ quota per day they should be following. There’s an underlying threat that if you don’t chat to your kids for more time per day than you’re currently doing then you’re somehow neglecting or damaging them.

If you happen to be in a situation where you’re a single parent, in a situation where one or both of you work full time, or where you’re overloaded with childcare and other work tasks it’s clear that there’s going to be pressures on your time. It might be that with young children you only have a few hours per day to spend with them once they get home from school or nursery, or you get back from work. Clearly there are plenty of things a parent could be doing in this time that might include singing, cuddles, talking, reading or perhaps eating a meal together or watching TV. This current survey just implies you should be designating more time for chat than anything else – and there’s no evidence that this is the best way to parent a child (well at least not from this survey).

It’s not even the right method to identify this kind of issue. If you want to know about people’s parenting skills you need studies that watch parent/child interactions and monitor them in real time over several months. You don’t just ask a small sample of parents to guess how much time they think they’ve been spending with their kids. They’re not going to be able to give an accurate answer and may feel they have to give socially desirable answers to not look like bad mums or dads.

There’s an implication that if you’re the kind of parent who devotes time to chores or watching TV more than talking to your kids you’re a bad parent. It doesn’t account for the fact that some parents may well have quality conversations with their child but have no choice but to get on with household tasks and also probably deserve to relax in front of the TV so they can recharge their batteries and be able to continuing caring for their child.

Of course if you’re consistently neglecting your child or simply using the television as a visual dummy this may have an impact on your child’s development. However this survey still represents a set of values that implies a very middle-class form of parenting (lots of structured quality chat time), which suggests parents who aren’t able to care in similar ways are ‘bad’.

Worse still the reporting of the survey harks back to ‘the past’ – that golden era where apparently parents spent loads of time talking to their kids. Any knowledge of our recent (and not so recent) history shows that very often parents had little or no time to talk to their kids or there was a view that children should be seen and not heard.

It seems to be a badly designed piece of research with the sole aim of getting maximum coverage in terms of headlines for the charity I Can who were behind the work. And it worked, many newspapers and radio stations have discussed the study uncritically and BBC news even devoted some of their coverage to the ‘crisis’.

So what’s the point of all this research? Well, the clue is in the press coverage that says: “I Can is launching a DVD offering tips for parents on how to maximise conversations with their children”.
Ah, so the charity invents a crisis of bad parenting but hey, look at this they’ve also got the solution too.

Maybe it is mean to pick on a charity – after all they are trying to raise cash for a worthy cause. However call me cynical but I expect a children’s charity to offer care and support to parents, not a study that judges and blames them – or research that gives parents yet another thing to agonise. A children’s charity shouldn’t be setting out a particular standard of parenting that is an ideal rather than something people can deliver and discriminates against those who’re probably trying their best but aren’t able to offer several hours per day of ‘chat time’ to their children.

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