Anne Karpf: Never mind quality time. What about 'enough' time?

Youngsters need parents who mono-task, not ones who fit them in when they can

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I was paying the water bill, wondering whether the toothpaste would last another day, and trying to finish an almost-late piece of work when I was interrupted by my younger daughter, brandishing a reproachful list of "have you done"s. I swatted her away with a "Not now, darling, I'm working." It was then that I read the results of a survey of 3,000 working parents and their children conducted by Admiral car insurance.

Hectic work schedules, they found, are creating a generation of "maybe later" children whose parents never have enough time to spend with them. Of the parents surveyed 80 per cent admitted that they didn't devote enough time to their kids, rarely notching up more than 36 minutes a day. I'd probably just deprived my child of at least four.

Of course in parenting there's an inverse ratio of time to guilt – less of the first means a lot more of the second. I sometimes fear that I spend more time worrying about my kids than caring for them, as if the first were somehow a substitute for the second.

I know, really, that it isn't, that what children crave more than anything – more even than PlayStations, Barbies and Topshop denim jackets (well, perhaps not the latter) – is their parents' undivided attention, and most of them have unerringly accurate antennae that detect when they're not getting it. I'd assumed that my ability to conduct one conversation out loud while mentally rehearsing another was undetectable, but when I asked my younger daughter if she ever felt that her father and I fobbed her off, I discovered that I'd been smoked out.

"I can tell when you're not paying attention. When I speak to Dad when he's sitting at his computer and he nods his head really fast and says 'yeah' a lot he's trying to show that he's listening but he isn't. And when I ask you something, you say 'hold on a minute' and it turns into 20. Sometimes you say 'I'm listening' and look up and smile: you're just pretending that you're really involved. You guys think that I think you're listening but I can tell that you're not. When I'm trying to have a proper conversation with you it can be frustrating but it also kinda makes me laugh." Ouch.

Just as I'm about to rend my garments in shame, she pitches in with: "But I know you both work from home part of the time: it's not just that you should spend more time with me but you should relax more too – you don't get enough sleep – you're always rushing around and getting stressed out." The girl may not have heard the phrase "time poverty" but the concept she clearly gets.

It isn't a new phenomenon. Economist Victor Fuchs found that between 1960 and 1986 the time American parents had available to be with their children fell at least 10 hours a week – and this before the arrival of email, mobiles, laptops and BlackBerries.

It's interesting that you hardly ever hear the words "workaholic" or "quality time" any more. Could this be because either those of us lucky enough to have a job are all workaholics now, or that every euphemism has its day: even the most determinedly positive thinker can no longer sustain the fantasy that the "quality" before "time" is anything other than just another way of saying "not enough"?

Sociologist Juliet Schor first drew attention to the time deficit in her 1991 bestseller The Overworked American. She argued that over the previous decade the average American worker had added 164 hours – or the equivalent of a month – to their working year. Since then the long-hours culture on both sides of the Atlantic has showed little sign of abating. On the contrary, despite the lip-service paid to "family-friendly" policies and "work-family" balance, the workplace has become more competitive and macho: blue-collar workers depend on overtime, while managerial and professional work seems to have extended almost elastically.

In the UK, the Cameron-Clegg cuts will inevitably mean that the staff who remain will be expected to do more, and they'll feel less confident about refusing. In volatile, insecure times, it's a brave person who talks about the right to leisure.

Choice, anyway, had already become meaningless to those parents who depend on two incomes to pay the mortgage. Harriet Harman once drew attention to what she called "shift parenting" – one parent handing over the baby to the other in a car park as one left for work and the other returned. And don't talk to me about flexible working – I'm all flexed out.

Most of us want to be able to afford to do fewer hours of work and not do them at odd times. Nor is "homeworking" nirvana either: it means work spilling over into every corner of life – a straight line to "'maybe later". How do you instill into the minds of young (and not-so-young) children the idea that you can be at work at home?

Yet these days the concept of leaving work at work sounds hopelessly antiquated. You are expected to be always available, to mop up what you can't complete at work – thanks to the new technology – in your own time. The Admiral survey found children complaining that hardly had they got home than their parents began checking their email. And if you have elderly parents who need attention (no: to whom you'd like to give attention), or a friend discharged early from hospital, then the squeeze on your time is almost complete.

The result is that parents have started timetabling and organising home life in the same way that they organise work. Time with children gets scheduled or traded between parents, and fun deferred (kids don't have a line manager's power to demote or censure). Only pre-arranged commitments that get inscribed into the family organiser – the sports day, violin lesson or dental appointment – are sure to get covered. Sleep (ours) and unstructured time (theirs and ours) takes a hit. We no longer talk about having it all, only doing too much.

What are the effects of our chronic hurry? A Harvard study found that parents who spent more time working spent more money on their kids, buying more discretionary items like toys, books and DVDs for them – and not only because they could afford to. Alarmists like the economist Sylvia Hewlett claim that the parental "time deficit" has led to an increase in alcohol and drug use among young people, poor educational attainment, and even eating disorders.

But this is to pile more guilt upon parents – especially women – who already shoulder large quantities of it. It ignores the fact that it's parents too who miss out on lazy, unstructured time with their kids, just hanging out.

Children have different temporal rhythms to adults: they're slower and live in a continuous present ("are we there yet?"). Speeding them up, constantly chivvying them, subjecting them to the pace of the assembly line or the frantic rhythms of corporate life is doing them no good. Which doesn't mean falling back on fantasies of the past (the idea of intensive, extended interaction between parent and child is a relatively recent one), or organising the home entirely around children's needs. My own mother never communed with me on a daily basis, nor ever felt guilty about it: we were left to our own devices to an extent unimaginable today when the devices are likely to be less innocent. So what's to be done? Some of the commentaries on "time deprivation" are barely concealed demands for women to get out of the workplace and back into the home. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, by contrast, argues that women have entered the workforce on men's terms and need to push back the hours of work. Schor has a greener solution: she claims that we could now produce our 1948 standard of living (in goods and services) in less than half the time it took in 1948. In other words Westerners could afford to work a four-hour day, or a working year of six months.

In the UK, the Relationship Foundation's "Keep time for children" campaign promotes the importance of family time, especially at weekends, to parents, employers and government. Parents of schoolchildren, they argue, should be protected by law from having to work a whole weekend, and given the right to ask not to work at certain times.

Meanwhile we continue to multi-task, at home as at work, while our kids yearn for parents who mono-task (that's why the answering-machine was invented). Ultimately we can't outsource our attention, or give them an IOU note about time. Because by the time we're ready for them to redeem it, they won't be wanting time with us any more. Incidentally, two per cent of the fee for this article has been donated to my younger daughter. Guilt money.

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