Most of us start families with the expectation that they will make us happy. In theory, we could not be more correct. Studies have shown that happiness is truly based on successful relationships. A landmark Harvard study tracked more than seven hundred individuals for seventy-five years and found that the key commonality among very happy people were strong social bonds. No other element—not money, not professional success, nor social status—came close to relationships in promoting health and happiness. And of course, the relationships that contribute most to our happiness are our closest ones—our family members.
Given how critical these relationships are, it makes sense that building a warm and supportive family life should be our key priority. Investing two hours each evening in the exclusive care of your children has a transformative effect on family life. It enriches the bonds between parents and children. It enables parents to actively care for their school-age children, offering them their full attention, guidance, company, and affection. It protects family time from the unending distractions of life in the digital age.
People have different reactions to the two-hour length of Prime-Time Parenting. Most parents think it’s too little time to be spending with their child. Then, when they try to devote two hours exclusively to their families, without slipping in a text here or a glance at Facebook there, they feel two hours is a very long time indeed. I agree that two hours is both short and long. It’s long enough to accommodate the evening needs of children and families. At the same time, it’s short enough to ensure that parents have time to themselves in the evening. And that’s important because parents need a certain amount of time each day to enjoy aspects of their identity beyond parenthood.
Studies have shown that length of time with parents is not a great indicator of childhood happiness. If a parent is stressed, bored, or distracted while caring for a child, the child notices and in no way benefits from the parent’s company. In fact, studies have shown that prolonged exposure to inattentive or anxious parents has a decidedly negative impact on children. It would be much healthier for parents to be productively employed in an activity they were interested in and actively involved in their children’s care for shorter periods of the day. Keeping the evening parenting routine to an active two hours enables most parents to be both physically and emotionally present for their child. A looser and longer routine might encourage a multitasking approach, which tends to involve being physically present and mentally distracted.
So here is the good news: it doesn’t take oceans of time each day to be a good parent to your child. You don’t need to be with them for large portions of each day, but devoting some uninterrupted time with children, talking with them, having meals with them, reading and discussing books with them are all associated with very positive outcomes for your child’s development . . . as well as for your long-term, parent-child bond.
We live in an age when American children’s number-one wish is that their parents were less stressed. They wish for this more than they wish for more time with their parents. Given the challenges that American parents face, it is no surprise that many of us are anxious. Today most Americans can expect to change jobs more than ten times throughout their careers. Because most people don’t leave jobs by choice, that means that Americans can expect to be let go or fired—an extremely stressful
experience—a handful of times throughout their working lives. Furthermore, American married parents, even when both are employed, have half the earning power than married parents did in the 1970s. And in the 1970s only one parent worked in most families! For single parents the economic pressure and associated instability is even more extreme.
The resulting stress is a significant burden on parents and children. Until the underlying causes of the stress can be addressed, American parents need to find constructive ways to manage household stress. And Prime-Time Parenting can help them do just that.
A predictable evening structure provides a sense of calm and orderliness to the home. When everyone knows the order of weeknight activities, there is less household stress. By training your children’s babysitter or caregiver in the Prime-Time Parenting routine, you can have the routine start at six even on evenings when you don’t arrive home until later. That takes pressure off parents who sometimes work late or have social functions to attend. It also provides ongoing regular homework and mealtimes for children, regardless of who is caring for them. It buffers the inevitable changes to parent schedules and their impacts on children.
Every segment of Prime-Time Parenting—from greeting children, to setting them up for homework, to having a family dinner, to supervising the completion of homework, bath time, book time, and bed—is designed to nurture family bonds and relationships. Nobody is promising that each of these activities will be picture-perfect or that every family dinner will be heartwarming and intellectually stimulating. There will undoubtedly evenings when a child throws a tantrum and another child “forgets” his homework for the thirtieth time. But by attending to these evening activities on as close to a nightly basis as possible, parents sow the seeds of a rich and lasting family life. In fact, it’s the very oscillations in child behavior from one evening to the next that reveal the routine’s value. When children have regular habits and clear expectations, their challenges and moods become much more apparent—which makes it far easier for the parent to help them. In a more casual household the child’s behaviors may go unnoticed and undealt with.
Predictable family time each evening has benefits beyond the present. They establish a pattern of convivial behavior that will make it more likely your children will go on to build robust families of their own. More than anything else, these strong familial bonds are likely to predict their health, happiness, and life satisfaction throughout their lives. As Robert Waldinger, the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, commented about the study of more than 724 men for seventy-five years, “The clearest message we get from this 75 year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Prime-Time Parenting also emphasizes the need for parents to set aside time for self-care. This is possible because the children have gone to bed at a reasonable hour. Actively caring for one another and for one’s self promotes mental health because it helps us to repair the damages of the day. If we’ve had a major disappointment, we can reach out for support from other adults to process it and move on. Imagine the alternative: a parent who does not have the time or privacy to converse with other adults is more likely to turn her own child into a confidante, which is a distortion of the parent-child relationship. It is critical that parents have time and opportunity to get the support they need from other adults. When they don’t, their children sense their pain and isolation, and it burdens them.
Even though Prime-Time Parenting is a two-hour routine for families, it probably should be described as a four-hour evening routine. After the two hours with the children, the time for the parents is every bit as important—the essential opportunity to ensure that parents are as well looked after as their children.
Excerpted from Prime-Time Parenting: The Two-Hour-a-Day Secret to Raising Great Kids by Heather Miller. Copyright © 2018. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.