Quality Time – A Guilt Trap

By Dr John Peacock

Anna Wintour, when she was editor of the British ‘Vogue” magazine, claimed to be able to spend quality time with her children at some un-godly hour in the morning and still be at the office before anyone else.

Quality time seems to be the buzz excuse these days for mothers harassed into the work force by cynical governments and social pressure. It also seems to be set against quantity time and, since quantity time is seen as one of the main advantages of home education by many, I thought it worth exploring the experiences of some who have opted for either quality or quantity and drawing some conclusions that, I hope will relieve some of a burden of guilt and also benefit the children.

Eleanor did not home educate but she did give up her secretarial job six years ago in order to ‘be there’ when her daughter needed her. She believed that quality time was not separable from quantity time. Now she is looking for work again. “Because I was always there for her, I didn’t make as much effort as some of my working friends – and I began to envy the special times they seemed to have together. The years seem to have slipped away – and in many ways I wish I had continued to work, even part time,” she says.

Sarah did continue to work but very carefully scheduled in time for her children…quality time. ‘They always seemed tired and crotchety. They refused to play the constructive games I suggested and preferred watching TV to having me read them stories. But they respond well to the nanny. I got to feel as if I was wasting time – as if I might as well stay late at the office if they weren’t going to pay any attention to me”. The trouble here was that the quality time Sarah planned for her seven and four-year-olds was just too late and they were too tired to play when she came home eager for interaction.

Sally decided to work part time and employ a home help to do all the chores so that she could spend quality time with her children when she was at home. “To me quality time means time spent exclusively with the children – paying total attention to them and what they have to say.” She goes on to admit that her boys aged four and eight, are only too keen to slope off with their mates or sit bug-eyed before the box while she gets on with the chores she delegated to someone else.

Dr Jim Watters, a child psychiatrist, says cynically, ‘What is quality time? Who defines it? People need to be consistently good parents, not super parents in brief bursts.”

All these women seem to see others as successful and themselves as failing in some degree. The resultant feelings of guilt are not good either for themselves of their children.

“Quality time is a concept that can only be understood in terms of our consumer society and the world of material goods,” says Watters, “and I believe that to use phrases that are apt in the world of consumer goods in the relationship between parents and children is dangerous.”

What then is quality time and how does it relate to the home educating parent?

However much you may wish it to be otherwise, you simply cannot schedule quality time. It answers only to itself and strikes when and where you least expect it. This may be on the steps when you’re carrying a load of washing and your two-year-old asks “why?” in the bath when your toddler inquisitively tweeks your nipple, provoking a discussion on some of the facts of life; in the kitchen when the toast is burning, your tights are laddered, you are late for an appointment and your daughter wants to know where the ladybird gets her spots. You simply have to seize the moment – or it evaporates into ordinary time and is lost forever. Quality time has nothing to do with expensive treats, or treats at all. It is intangible, a serendipity, priceless and cannot be produced to order. The one key identifying factor is that 99% of the time it is child-initiated and driven.

Quantity time simply offers more occasions for quality time to occur. So is home education a guaranteed way of finding that all important quality time with your children? No, not if you get so busy that you don’t hear the questions or notice the moment. Of course not every question ushers in quality time, and you shouldn’t always drop what you are doing for the sake of the child. That is more likely to lead to an inflated self-opinion than an education. But working together day by day enables the intimate contact to be established that allows your intuition to tell you that this is the moment. Then you should drop everything and concentrate on the moment. A few minutes spent at the right time is worth weeks of work when the child is not interested and so those times are precious. Sharing your life and work with your child at home enables you to spend those moments at the right time and reap the benefits in stress-free learning and really deep relationships.

If you can’t schedule the times, and they are child initiated, how can you be prepared to take advantage of them when they happen? There are two things that you can do. First you can take every opportunity to continue your own education. This is not necessarily in formal courses, although they are good too, it is more a question of keeping your curiosity alive and disciplining yourself to follow through. Never accept anything at face value. There is always treasure to be discovered by asking ‘why?’ and digging into even the most unlikely things. You can listen more and make connections, but none of this will be of any value unless you make the time to follow through your investigations and to quietly think through what you have discovered. Secondly, regain the facility of play. There is no real learning without play. You cannot really know anything without fooling around and playing with it, because it is in play that we make the necessary connections and acquire the necessary skills to become masters of the material. If you don’t believe me, watch a kitten with a ball of wool or a child learning to speak.

Home education is making a profession of parenting, and the professional keeps her relaxed eye on the main game while doing all the ancillaries. “Quality time, if there is such a thing,” says Dr. Watters, “should be led by the children. Parents must be receptive to it, listening and enabling and willing to ‘go with the flow’.”


From Otherways magazine issue 103

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