January 19, 2004

Quality Time vs. Quantity Time

I've got three kids (soon to be four); the oldest is just shy of seven years old. I've got a full-time job. And yet I've got a web log; I write open-source software in Tcl; I've written a couple of (unpublished) novels. (And my wife is still speaking to me!)

And, far from neglecting them, I spend a lot of time with my kids. How do I have time for all of this?

Partly, it's because Jane's mostly a housewife these days. A lot of household chores get done while I'm at work, and that gives us both more time in the evening. (And may I say, both Jane and I are grateful that we can afford to live this way.)

But the main reason is that we've never accepted the notion of quality time.

Quality time, so far as I understand, is all about making up for the fact that you don't have much time to spend with your kids. Since you're short of time, make the most of the time you have! Make it time of high quality! On the face of it that's a fine thing--for some definition of "high quality." What people usually seem to mean is "making the child the center of your attention."--by playing a game together, say. Or reading a story. And that, by itself, is also a fine thing. Put them together, though, and you've got a problem. More to the point, you're depriving your kid of what I call "quantity time."

Quality time is about spending your time doing things with your kids; quantity time is about making space for your kids in the things you do.

For example, I spend a lot of time sitting in a comfy chair in my study with a book or my laptop. I share my study with a playpen, several small chairs, a Nintendo GameCube, and a fluctuating population of Lego, K'Nex, and sundry other toys. And if the kids are awake, I'm often sharing it with one, two, or all three of them. They get my attention when they want it--say, to separate a pair of Lego bricks, or answer a question, or sometimes just to sit in my lap for awhile. My little girl Anne has been in my lap twice just in the twenty minutes I've been writing this.

A digression: I recently installed Mac OS X 10.2.3, code-named "Panther", on my laptop. And one of the new features of Panther is called Expose. And the neatest feature of Expose, from my point of view, is that I can press a single key, and all of the windows on my screen fly off to the sides, almost completely exposing the desktop. A second press, and they all come flying back. And this is neat because I've got a picture of David and James as my wallpaper, and almost every day little Anne walks up to me and says, "Where David? Where James?"

And I push F11, and she smiles and points and says, "There David! There James! There Scooby!" (David is wearing a Scooby-Doo T-shirt.) And I nod, and she smiles, and then I push F11 and go right back to what I was doing.

Though I know you couldn't tell, I just took a break to tell bedtime stories to David and James. (I'm reading Dave The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander.)

I don't often take the kids out just to spend time with them; but if I go out to run errands, I usually have one or two of them with me.

When I wash the dishes after dinner (that's one chore that doesn't get done while I'm at work), I make David come help me. He doesn't always want to; he often has other things he wants to do. But that's another side of quantity time--it's not always fun. The night before last, consequently, David and I had a long conversation about making the best of it--about how to be cheerful even when you're doing something you don't want to do.

And that's really the key: quantity time teaches kids amazing things. Because I'm doing my own things, they learn that they aren't the center of the universe. They have to amuse themselves, so they learn to be self-reliant. On the other hand, they know that I'm there if they need me, so they learn trust. They get to see me doing whatever I'm doing, whether I'm shopping, or paying bills, or washing dishes, or writing software, or just sitting and reading a book--and that's how they learn how life is lived.

And sometimes, of course, I spend time just playing with them, because that's part of life too.

Posted by Will Duquette at January 19, 2004 07:55 PM