Child Care Time

Charlene Kalenkoski
11 May 2008

Guest blogger Charlene Kalenkoski of the Ohio University Economics Department is doing research that addresses these questions: When I took this picture of my friend Gaela (who is a girl, not a cat), was I engaging in photography, child care, or both? What if I stayed at Gaela’s house while her parents stepped out to a party on a Saturday night, spending most of my time curled up on the couch writing a blog entry after she had gone to bed? Would I be providing child care?

The introduction of the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) a few years ago spurred research by U.S. economists into the time parents spend caring for their children, a valuable input into the production of child outcomes. But all time is not equal. For example, giving a child your full attention as a parent will have a different impact than just being in the same room with your child while you are watching TV.

Researchers have tried to account for child care of different “qualities” in different ways. One way is to look separately at time spent in child care as a primary activity (child care is the most important activity being done at the time) and child care as a secondary activity (child care is being performed, but some other activity like housework is reported to be the primary activity). Another way is to compare child care as a primary activity and passive child care (the time a parent spends in the presence of a child when child care is not the primary activity-perhaps a parent is watching TV while the child is playing in the same room). A third way is to separately investigate time spent in child care activities that are deemed development-oriented (such as teaching) and those that are not (such as supervising).

Gigi Foster of the University of South Australia, and I propose a fourth way of classifying parental child care time in a working paper soon to be published in Review of Economics of the Household. We propose classifying child care as either sole-tasked (the only activity being performed) or multi-tasked (child care is one of multiple activities being performed simultaneously). In addition to the intensity of child care time, this measure captures variations in the costs to parents of such time. Sole-tasked time has a higher opportunity cost. Our findings show that the classification chosen has significant implications for the determinants of parental child care time.


I want to add that children can impose supervisory constraints even when they are in another room. Some of my recent research in collaboration with Jayoung Yoon and others (“By What Measure?” and “What is Child Care?”) explores the empirical dimensions of supervisory time. I’m hoping to help organize a session on parental time-use at the upcoming meetings of the International Association for Time Use Research (IATUR) in Sydney, Australia, next December.

Guest blogger Charlene Kalenkoski of the Ohio University Economics Department

5 comments on "Child Care Time"

  1. Bootstrap Media Preview
    K Maeve Powlick

    I wonder how much time should optimally be spent solely providing child care, which I agree is more expensive to the parent. Children definitely need some of this time – like time reading together, talking about feelings, working on school work, etc – but I think too much of this type of child care with the child as the center of attention, and not enough child ‘care’ that involves children in our day to day living, can contribute to entitlement and selfishness in kids in addition to making it harder on parents. Having children help with housework or in the garden (even if ‘help’ is just folding napkins or putting seeds into holes), involving kids in intergenerational social events, and, if possible, bringing kids to work provides kid with care while also facilitating the development of important physical, mental, and social skills. In these cases, the multi-tasked nature of the activity is important for its value to kids and to the family as a whole. To take an example from my childhood, I learned to garden by gardening with my mom, and according to her I became a contributing members of her gardening team by the time I was a toddler. It also became my job to give visitors tours of the garden, helping me develop social skills at a young age. Having me to garden with her made it easier and more fun for my mom to get the gardening done (providing virtually all of our food for several years). It also helped me to develop both gross and fine motor skills and immunities to god knows what, digging in the dirt. I learned to identify poisonous plants and to pick and eat vegetables and herbs my body was craving when I was sick. Lastly, by being involved in this activity – rather than using that time for some form of focused child care – I learned how to grow my own garden and to appreciate gardening as a useful, joyful, and stress-relieving hobby. Can you tell I’m excited about devoting my caring labor to my own garden this year?! 🙂

  2. Bootstrap Media Preview

    Child care is all encompassing. Even when children are asleep, it is the caretakers responsibility to ensure safety, environmental control, routine, predictability; can they do their blog while children are sleeping? depends on their ability to control and respond when needed. Solely providing care can also be shared. In multifamily situations, the important adult figures who interact with the child can be mother, father, uncle, neighbor, teacher, grandmother, etc and given the quality of that interaction is one that promotes personal growth and self confidence, the value is enhanced, but the labor is preserved, so to speak. While interactive child care and passive child care are the subject of defining the activity of child care in this question, the overall phenomena is comprehensive child care that integrates all phases and stages. What is at issue is who is responsible. What did you do while you were caring for the child? You are ultimately responsible for safety, education, training, sustenance,nurturing, moral development and spiritual guidance. A tough job, I might add.

  3. Bootstrap Media Preview

    the only comment that i would add is, in relation to measuring ‘hours of care’, what about the time when you are thinking about an issue with the kids and working out what you are going to do/say/teach them in relation to this. i think this is something that a lot of mums do– i am particularly conscious of it because of my son’s autism (everything, but everything has to be explained, and because it is dificult for him to generalise, it usually has to be re-explained for each situation). But, even with my neurotypical kids, they face issues and i spend time thinking about them and trying to work out what is best to do. how on earth would anyone measure that, because, like most mum’s, i am also doing 3 or 4 other things at the time…………

  4. Bootstrap Media Preview

    the ambiguities abound. If I take my chiold to a ball game or bake with them is that Sole-tasked time? Does it mater if I love to bake or go to the ball game? What if i hate to bake/go to the ball game but love to eat baked goods/a ballpark frank?

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