As a frequent listener to talkback radio it is intriguing to see how polarised people are on the virtues or otherwise of childcare. As a researcher and practitioner the temptation is to simply see the issues from a detached perspective – merely of academic interest. But listening to callers reminds me that such debate is healthy and necessary because it’s people expressing their views of what’s best for the wellbeing of our nation’s children. Don’t we all want and desire what is best for our collective children? As the poet said, “Children are one-third of our population and all of our future.” None of us intentionally wants to harm our children and thus our world’s future.
Quality time or quantity time. If I can’t give quantity is quality good enough? Can a lack of quantity time be compensated by quality time? Does a child need quantity and quality time in equal proportions? What’s more important? All good questions. Let’s try to make sense of this issue without losing our compass of what is best for a child.
Quantity time refers to the amount of time a parent is physically present with their child. But what constitutes being physically present? Think of the following situations: is it quantity time when a parent watches Oprah and Dr. Phil while their child plays on the carpet beside them? Is it quantity time when I’m playing soccer with my boys . . . but my mind is far away thinking of writing parent articles? I’m physically there, but in a sense I’m not there.
Quality time refers to the standard or calibre of the time we spend with our kids. It means we are focused, intentional, and engaged with our child. Our attention is directed at our child and what they are doing. It makes sense then that one hour of quality time is better for a child than four hours of watching Oprah quantity time. But there is more to this issue than what I have discussed so far.
Neuroscience is making some amazing discoveries about how a child’s brain develops. Experience is what moulds a child’s brain. When a child experiences something it fires a neuron. The child’s brain has over one billion neurons each with an average of ten thousand synapses (connections) to other neurons. Brains are highly complex structures! For optimal brain growth in the early years the type of experience the brain needs to get wired properly is very specific.
A brain region called the prefrontal cortex controls the higher executive functions of the brain. This area controls such vital functions as regulating body and emotions, having an awareness of self, feeling empathy, understanding morality, and achieving attuned communication. For this part of the brain to develop it requires emotionally nurturing experiences and lots of them. The research is conclusive that without attachment rich experiences this area of the brain will not optimally develop. Drs Brazelton and Greenspan, America’s foremost experts on chid development state, “Nurturing emotional relationships are the most primary foundation for both intellectual and social growth . . . The most important learning in the early years is provided by human interaction. Objects and learning devices do not compare.”
The child who plays the app angry birds all day long, or who simply is engaged in activities, will have a different wired brain to the child who is hugged, listened to, shown delight, and provided with more warm interaction than is demanded. While children’s brain architect is basically similar, how the structures get wired (integrated together) is the result of the child’s experiences.
What the neuroscience research is discovering is that being with our child is not the most important aspect, so debating about the primacy of quality time versus quantity time is really irrelevant and a misnomer if children are the context. When people are thinking of quality or quantity they are not thinking of relationships because these are egocentric constructs. That means they focus on us, not the child’s needs. The real question parents should be asking is not quality or quantity, but what does my child need to preserve an emotional connection with me? The answer to that question is what optimally develops your child’s brain.
To discover essential ways to build the attachment relationship with your child so that you have both quality and quantity time, check out our attachment tutorial.
Brazelton, T.B., & Greenspan, S.I. (2000). The Irreducible Needs of Children. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing.
Siegel, D.J., & Payne Bryson, T. (2011). The Whole Brain child. New York: Delacorte Press.