How Working Parents Can Strategically Prioritize Their Time
With the many demands at home and at work, working parents need to strategically prioritize their responsibilities, so their time is spent on what make matters. They must ask themselves, what do I, as a parent, need to do that is unique? What adds the most value to my children’s lives? And what can be done by other people?
Every working parent will answer these questions differently. But in general, we can break down parenting into four different types of work. First, pastoral care, or the intellectual and emotional engagement with your children. Second, decision making, which includes deciding what is best for your children, problem solving, and navigating trade-offs. Third, logistics, or transporting children, asking them to do their homework, following through on decision making, and organizing activities. Finally, household support — all the tasks required for with running the household, such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and errands. Prioritizing pastoral care and decision making can have the greatest positive impact on children, while much of the latter two can be delegated to others in your parenting ecosystem.
We often talk about the “balancing act” of managing work and parenting, which assumes that the solution is a combination of compromise, multitasking, and choosing an understanding employer. But there are limits to compromise, and multitasking is exhausting. And we do not all have the good fortune or opportunity to choose a flexible and understanding employer. Even if we do, this choice can be undermined by the inherent demands of the work or the realities of who gets promoted, whose role is made redundant, and who gets pay raises.
An alternative approach is to think about parenting more strategically and prioritize demands more rigorously: What do I, as a parent, need to do that is unique? What adds the most value to my children’s lives, and how they will develop into happy and well-adjusted adults? What can be done by other people, with minimal impact, if I am not involved?
Every working parent will answer these questions differently. But in general, we can break down parenting into four different types of work, based on how strategic the work is and how much it requires direct parental involvement:
- Pastoral care: the intellectual and emotional engagement with your children
- Decision making: deciding what is best for your children, problem solving, and navigating trade-offs
- Logistics: transporting children, asking them to do their homework, following through on decision making, and organizing activities
- Household support: all the tasks required for running the household, such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and errands
Most studies and principles of effective parenting suggest that the latter two need significantly less direct parental involvement, and can safely be left to friends, nannies, or other support without guilt. Prioritizing pastoral care and decision making can have the greatest positive impact on children while requiring far less time — about six hours a week. Yet spending disproportionate amounts of time on logistics and household chores can leave parents drained of the time and energy needed to focus on the more strategic aspects of parenting and to advance their careers.
But you can readjust your priorities, so you can feel confident that the time you do spend at home is making the biggest difference. Here’s how.
The consensus from studies on good and effective parenting include concepts such as showing love, communicating, supporting, teaching values, and setting boundaries. While the vocabulary may differ from one parenting expert or study to another, these concepts can collectively be named as “pastoral care.” Pastoral care requires parents who have the emotional energy and headspace to connect with their children and, according to numerous studies, has the highest priority in terms of parental engagement.
To ensure you’re prioritizing pastoral care, find at least half an hour of focused, calm time every day to spend with your children without a specific agenda. It could be during breakfast, or before or after dinner — whenever it is possible to set aside some downtime on a regular basis. It is difficult to provide pastoral care if a parent is bogged down in multitasking, errands, and chores, so clear your schedule for those 30 minutes and only focus on your kids. Pastoral care becomes even more important as children grow older, so for older children, consider choosing a time after younger ones have already gone to bed.
During this time together, ask open ended questions. Be curious and interested. Ask them questions like: How was your day? What happened with a sporting event today? Can I help you with anything? What did you think of the new teacher? And show affection; praise, a hug, or words of support can make a big difference. Even teenagers appreciate it in quieter moments (although they often won’t show it).
Decision making can create a heavy weight of responsibility. Some decisions require research on previously unknown topics, such as medical issues or college financing options; others involve difficult trade-offs with unpredictable consequences. Which subjects and activities should my kids be encouraged to pursue? If there is an incident at school, what’s the best way handle it? Do I need to hire a tutor to help my child? When is the right time for my child to be able to do things independently with his friends outside the home?
Depending on the nature of your decisions, the required level of parental involvement can vary. Where the issue involves pastoral care or medical issues, there is obviously a higher need for parental involvement. But in other instances — such as choosing which extracurriculars to take part in or whether they can go on that sleepover — you may be able to delegate. Designate another adult, perhaps a spouse or partner, family friend, godparent, or extended family available via Zoom (someone in your “parenting ecosystem”) to help with the less critical decisions. In addition to the help this provides to the parent, studies have found that involving another adult in a parenting ecosystem is also beneficial for the emotional well-being of children, especially when they grow into adolescence. Be sure to check in with these people regularly to make sure you are aligned. And as your children grow older, ensure that they take greater ownership of these decisions, as well.
In addition, teach your children problem-solving skills: how to stay calm, assess options, and consider potential consequences. This can help them make confident decisions that are age appropriate, without your involvement in each one. For instance, a 10-year-old can check the weather and decide if it is a good idea to wear a coat to school without your needing to make the choice for them.
Logistics include all the planning, transportation, and timetabling involved in getting your children to school, activities, and social events — as well as your own commitments as a working adult. It also includes much of the operational aspects that come from decision making. If a child is joining the swim team, for instance, someone must then purchase needed supplies, manage the schedule, pay invoices, and transport the children back and forth.
It is generally acknowledged that overloading children with activities can backfire, while organizing all those extra activities will increase the parenting workload. To combat this, prioritize activities that are most important and enjoyable for your children, and don’t worry about whether they are missing out on the rest. In addition, get as much support on the logistics as possible: family members, friends, carpools, and bus services. As you make these arrangements, prioritize those aspects of logistics that can have a pastoral care element. For example, many parents find that if there is a sufficiently long drive to an after-school activity, it may be a good idea to do that drive themselves, so they can talk to their children about what is going on in their lives. But a 10-minute drive between art class and soccer practice may be something you can delegate to a friend, especially if their child is also participating in those activities.
This is the least strategic aspect of parenting, but one that can be incredibly time-consuming. The New York Times recently estimated that parents spend 6.5 hours a day on housework. It is highly important to reduce the less value-adding aspects of this, in order to free up energy and time for pastoral care, or to convert some of this effort into something that can be shared with children. After all, kids who do chores learn responsibility and generally enjoy greater success in life.
Offload this as much as possible. Outsourcing can include getting help from extended family and friends or hiring help. Additionally, consciously decide which work simply does not need to be done as well or as often. For this part, you’ll need to resist the idea of being judged. There is a lot of social pressure to maintain a “clean” house in order to feel successful as a mother especially, but very few children will experience trauma from dirty dishes being left out overnight.
Turn housework into something everyone does together and challenge your thinking about your children’s capabilities. Create a disciplined environment where children are asked to take responsibility for chores on a set schedule. As a friend of mine tells his children, “Chores are not cleaning up after yourself, but what you do for the household.” A young child can put out food for pets on a daily basis. A preteen can put everyone’s towels in the laundry machine once a week. A teenage driver can do the regular trip to the store for milk and other necessities.
In order to create the headspace for what is important, parents need rigorous prioritization of how their time and attention should be directed. It is much more difficult to engage a child in a calm conversation about a bad day at school or focus on an important presentation at work when a parent is tired from cooking and chores at home. As much as we all love the idea of home-cooked meals and clean houses, an evening of pizza delivery and a messy living room can create a better environment for quality parenting to take place.