Which do you think would make the most difference in a child's life: spending time with parents as a kid or as a teenager?
The answer may surprise you. Our culture places a strong emphasis on parenting children when they're young. We obsess to the extent that even working mothers today spend as much time with their children as at-home mothers did in the early 1970s, about 14 hours a week. Fathers' time has nearly tripled, from 2.6 hours a week in 1965 to 7.2 hours in 2010.
But parents who want to make the most of this time investment would be wise to apply it during the teen years, according to a study published this month in the Journal of Marriage and Family. It's the first large-scale study of its kind, conducted with more than 1,500 families over several years by researchers from the University of Toronto, Bowling Green State University and the University of Maryland.
The sheer amount of time mothers spend with kids ages 3 through 11, the study says, has virtually no relationship to behavioral health, emotional well-being or academic performance. Instead, it's the quality of time that counts -- reading together, doing homework, playing sports, going on family excursions.
But with adolescents ages 12 to 18, more time with Mom correlated strongly with reduced delinquent behavior -- bullying others, cheating, lying or arguing too much.
What's more, additional "family time" -- mothers and fathers together in activities with children -- resulted in better behavioral health and less risk-taking through substance abuse and sex. And the kids got better math scores.
I wouldn't have guessed that about the math, but the rest confirms something I've felt intuitively: Teenagers need their parents. It's a stressful time of life. As I've written before, the teen years are parents' last, best chance to matter.
Melissa Milkie, one of the study's authors and a sociologist at the University of Toronto, explained in an email, "It may be that time is more scarce, freely chosen and meaningful for teens, and when they do spend time with Mom or both parents, it helps an adolescent feel like they are important to the parents."
The study also erodes the sacred ideology about intensive mothering -- at least for kids 3 to 11 -- that has inflamed our culture's "mommy wars" over the past two decades.
Amy Hsin of Queens College, another sociologist researching parent time, said she hopes to debunk the idea that mothers' employment has a negative effect on children because it reduces the amount of maternal time kids need. A study she published in October in the journal Demography came to the same conclusion as Milkie's: It's the quality of time together, not sheer quantity, that counts.
If parent time matters more in the teen years, how does one design a work-family life that's balanced? In a famous piece for The Atlantic Monthly, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," Anne-Marie Slaughter explained why she left her high-powered foreign policy job at the State Department when her oldest son was struggling in middle school. Her hours as a Princeton University professor are less punishing. I admire her choice -- but most women don't have such a wealth of options.
I asked Milkie about this. "A better way than restructuring careers over the life course might be to demand more from workplaces -- more sane hours, etc.," she wrote.
Could that happen? It's a great idea, but I'm skeptical that it's a priority for my generation. Perhaps the teens we're spending time with now will find a way to bring those family values to work.
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.