Between the fast-paced lifestyle and the ‘need’ to catch a breath for leisure, are Indian parents spending enough time with their children? Is parental education important for time spent in childcare? Is it true that having more children imply more time spent in childcare?
These questions matter because the quality and quantity of parental time influence children’s cognitive and social development. In developed countries, the time parents spend with their children has increased over the last half decade.
Using unit-level data from the 2019 Time use survey, we estimate the total time spent per week by Indian parents on childcare and child development activities. Physical care, feeding, cleaning, medical care, and so on are all part of child care. While teaching, interacting, reading, playing with children, and meetings with schools and childcare providers qualify as child development activities.
We extracted nationally representative data on 76,102 mothers and 70,394 fathers with children under the age of 18 years who live together. While the data is for the total time spent with all children, we report it by the age of the youngest child because younger children require more care. The time use survey tracks time spent on various activities the day before the interview. Considering it as a typical day, we extrapolate a weekly estimate of the time spent.
Education as a parameter
In the survey, Indian mothers spent 7.5 hours per week on childcare and 1.3 hours on child development activities, totaling nearly 9 hours.
As a rough comparison, in 2021, American mothers spent 12.3 hours a week with their children. The data may have an upward bias due to more mothers staying at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, there is sufficient evidence that the amount of time parents spend with their children has increased over time in developed countries.
Mothers with younger children spend significantly more time on childcare. For example, if an Indian mother had her youngest child under the age of five years, she would have spent 11.1 hours per week on average in childcare in 2019, just prior to the pandemic year. If a mother had the youngest child aged 6 to 14 years, she spent only 1.6 hours per week in childcare.
Mothers’ time with their children grows in proportion to their level of education. Mothers with a tertiary education have the fewest children but spend the most time on child-related activities. A mother with a tertiary education who has a child under the age of five years spends 12.5 and 3.5 hours per week on childcare and child development, respectively. Despite having more children, a mother with no education spends the least amount of time with them – 9.7 hours in childcare and only 1.1 hours in child development activities when her youngest child is less than five years old.
The disparity in time spent by highly educated and those insufficiently educated mothers on developmental activities such as reading and playing with children grows even wider for school-age children. When her youngest child is between the ages of 6 and 14, an uneducated mother devotes less than half-an-hour per week on child development. A mother with tertiary education spends over three hours.
Why, despite having more children, do mothers with no or little education spend less time with them?
First, they are more likely to come from poorer families and spend more time working for a living and doing domestic work. Second, they are likely to be constrained by their own ability to carry out child development activities such as reading and writing. As a result, their children are more likely to be cared for by grandparents or older siblings, or learn to be self-sufficient at a younger age.
Fathers spend less time with their children than mothers around the world. India is no exception. What is notable is that the difference in time spent on childcare does not differ significantly by education level for fathers as much as it does for mothers. If the youngest child is under the age of 14, a father with no education spends 2.3 hours per week on childcare. The tertiary-educated father spends 2.7 hours.
In terms of child development activities, however, fathers with no education spend less than one-fifth of the time, or even less than 30 minutes per week, with a child aged 6 to 14, compared to a tertiary-educated father who spends an average of 2.7 hours with a child of the same age.
Need for additional inputs
Parental time, both quantity and quality, matters for children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. Our analysis suggests that the states should supplement parental efforts on child development activities, particularly when parents have lower levels of education. This will require strengthening and upgrading the existing Anganwadi system, as well as extending it to urban areas for younger children.
The additional inputs to bridge the learning gap at school are likely to help older children. For example, the early signs of success of Tamil Nadu government’s Ennum Ezhuthum scheme to bridge the learning gap caused by the Covid-19 pandemic are encouraging. Such projects could run on a more regular basis.
Bridging the disparity in terms of early parental inputs through alternative sources would be critical to reducing inequality in adulthood.
Sowmya Dhanaraj is senior Research Fellow at Good Business Lab. Vidya Mahambare is a Professor of Economics and Director (Research) at Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai. Sarodiya Ghosh is a graduate of Madras School of economics.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)