If This Is What It Takes to Raise Happy Kids, the COVID Generation Lucked Out. But at What Cost?

A large proportion of young Israeli parents admit that they don’t spend enough time with their children – and that between work and family, it’s family that suffers. The coronavirus crisis with its isolation and quarantines changed that picture. But have families really benefited?

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An illustration of a family at a dinner table, with every member busy staring at a screen, including the cat.
Credit: Daniella Shuhman
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

A feeling of unease gripped the master’s students in the history and culture course at the University of Dallas in 2016, when they viewed a presentation by Orian Chaplin, a student from Israel. Orian, who grew up on Kibbutz Sarid in the north, told them about the communal children’s houses and noted that she, like all the kibbutz children, spent only four hours a day with her parents, from 4 P.M. to 8 P.M.

One student said that made her think of “The Handmaid’s Tale”; another wondered whether the prime minister at the time knew about the arrangement; and the lecturer asked whether kibbutz women had demanding careers.

After the students’ amazement abated, one of them, a woman of Mexican origin, asked to speak. With tears in her eyes she said, “I am so alone here. My husband works from morning to night and I am raising three small children without the language or a family. When you talked about the kibbutz and the communal housing, I said to myself that I would really like to share my mothering with other women.”

Silence descended on the classroom as each of Orian’s colleagues sank into her private thoughts.

Childrens’ houses are history and families live together today on kibbutzim. But it still turns out that in Israel overall, parents spend little time with their children as compared to parents in other OECD countries. On the one hand, Israelis work hard, ranking seventh from the top (out of 38) in terms of the number of hours they work each week – 40.2 hours on average. They also are fourth from the bottom in terms of striking a balance between work and leisure time. On the other hand, Israelis top the list of those 38 countries in number of children per family. The combination of lots of work and lots of children naturally affects the parents’ quality time with them.

These indices don’t augur well, especially since researchers have generally found that the nature of parent-child interaction during their time together is also significant. Playing, reading and helping with homework, for example, correlate positively with good behavior by the children, higher grades in school and more highly developed cognitive skills. Other studies have shown that quality time with one’s parents is a predictor of higher grades in mathematics and of fewer behavioral problems in adolescence.

And yet Israelis aren’t really exceptional. A 2019 survey published by researchers from Oxford University shows that the amount of time British families spend at home without engaging in joint activities soared by 43 percent between 2000 and 2015. An American study found that during a family meal lasting an average of 20 minutes, children are looking at their phones for 90 seconds of that time, while parents glance at theirs for three minutes on average. How deep can a family conversation be during such a fragmented and distracted meal?

Of course, parents don’t need surveys and data to know that quality time with children is precious – and rare. A leading cause of guilt feelings among parents is the knowledge – or feeling – that they aren’t spending enough time with their offspring. A 2019 study conducted by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics found that 30 percent of the respondents felt they did not devote enough time to their children, and the same percentage said they spent too little time with their partner. Among working parents, 34 percent felt they had a difficult time functioning in the family because of their commitment to work, and 23 percent noted, in contrast, that they had a hard time functioning on the job because of their commitment to the family. In other words, there was a higher rate of those reporting that work hurts the family than the opposite.

The gender division on the subject of guilt, in that same CBS study, might come as a surprise, because parental guilt feelings are generally assumed to be more significant among mothers. As it happens, however, more men (35 percent) than women (23 percent) felt they were devoting too little time to their children. A similar trend, albeit with a lower disparity, was also seen with regard to guilt over the time devoted to one’s partner. Thus, 28 percent of the female respondents reported feeling they did not devote sufficient time to their partner, as compared with 33 percent of the men.

Those who have the hardest time balancing work and family life appear to be young parents, in the 35-to-44 age group: Forty percent said they found it difficult to function at home because of their commitment to work. In addition, more than half the parents who worked over 50 hours a week reported that they devoted too little time to their children.

Other trends revealed in the CBS data show that secular people feel more guilt than the ultra-Orthodox over the amount of time they spend with their children; that people with post-high school education feel more guilty than those without; and that a correlation exists between guilt feelings and higher income. Thus, 35 percent of those who earn more than 4,000 shekels ($1,240) a month felt that they don’t devote enough time to their offspring. It’s also logical that more than half of those who work more than 50 hours a week stated that they don’t have enough time for their children and that their work is harmful to their functioning at home.

Stuck at home

The whole situation, of course, changed radically over the past 18 months, which were rife in Israel as elsewhere with nationwide lockdowns and frequent quarantines, which compelled even parents with demanding jobs to spend entire days with their children at home.

“I used to come home every day between about 7 and 8 P.M. My wife works in the education system, so she’s always free in the afternoon. Sometimes the children had already been bathed, and I would just read them a bedtime story. Sometimes I also lent a hand with the whole shower and supper routine, explains Dotan (not his real name), father of a 10-year-old girl and twin boys of 6, about his pre-pandemic routine (which will undoubtedly ring a bell for many readers).

“I enjoyed the little time I had with the children,” Dotan, 38, continues, “but I won’t deny that it was convenient for me that it was brief. I felt that I was managing well with my family. And then the coronavirus arrived and we had to work from home. It took me time to grasp that I needed to change the daily schedule and to work in segmented periods, instead of doing it all in one go. It suddenly looked illogical for me to be shut up in a study until 7 P.M., with the children running around in the house. So I started to work more at night and to spend more time with them during the day, especially when my wife needed to work and a responsible adult was needed in the vicinity.

“Today, on the days when I don’t go into my office, I pick them up after school. That involves a cost of tiredness and more pressure at work, but I also see the advantages. I feel closer to and more emotionally involved with my children, and that makes the family dynamics a bit more egalitarian. I hope that’s a message the children will take with them for the future.”

Orian Chaplin. Despite the difficulties, these are important times for forging ties between parents and children, especially before bed and when getting ready for work and school, which we don’t necesCredit: Gil Eliahu

Dikla (a fictitious name) and her partner, a graphic designer, have two daughters, aged 4 and 6. Before the advent of COVID-19, Dikla worked in a PR firm and picked up the girls twice a week, and her female partner did the same; the grandparents brought them home on the remaining day.

“That arrangement was perfect for both of us – each woman got two days to work late and two days to spend with the children, and the grandparents also benefited,” Dikla says. “Then the pandemic arrived. In the first lockdown, other than missing Grandma and Grandpa, we somehow enjoyed the special atmosphere. But following the subsequent lockdowns and summer vacation, today we’re totally wiped out, and we long for time without the girls.”

In a conversation with Orian Chaplin, 48, who is back in Israel and is a lecturer in mass communications, a documentary filmmaker, and the author of several works of nonfiction, including “Four Hours a Day” (2020, in Hebrew), I note that today – after this intense and stressful year and a half, with small children – many parents would be happy to adopt the communal kibbutz routine of former times: four hours with the children, unhampered by laundry to fold, meals to cook and so on. But Chaplin replies that despite the present difficulties, these are important times for forging ties between parents and children, especially during the in-between stretches: the nighttime hours, the hours organizing everyone before school and work – the periods that we don’t necessarily think of as quality time with the children.

“It’s true that four hours with the children every day without other tasks is a blessing,” she says, “but I find it incomprehensible that kibbutz parents weren’t by their children’s side during the night. After becoming a mother myself, I just couldn’t understand how my parents agreed not to sleep together with us in the same place. Night is the most intimate time when it comes to caring for children: reading to them, getting up for them if they have a bad dream or if they don’t feel well; in the morning there’s that sweet smell of sleep and you curl up with them in bed. Our parents missed all of that.”

And of course was the children on kibbutz who were also missing out on a basic part of family life: the intimacy of a home, all the seemingly banal interactions that occur when everyone is together under the same roof. “We didn’t see our parents in a real way,” Chaplin explains. “When they were with us they weren’t dealing with laundry, cleaning, bank accounts, cooking. When we were sent from the children’s house at 4 P.M. I saw my mom after her shower and coffee. We didn’t see our parents quarreling, making up, being sick or even during those times before brushing their teeth or deciding what to wear.”

Mali Alcobi, founder of the Dynamix-Work-Life Balance organizational consultancy company, agrees with Chaplin about the importance of continuity in the home: “The ongoing parental presence at home is critical for children, even if they don’t spend that time with them one-on-one. The very fact that there is a parent in the house builds confidence, is comforting and is a role model for the children.”

Ideas in a similar spirit can be found in the recently published manual “Good Parents,” in Hebrew, by educational psychologist Hili Kochavi. She writes that parents’ physical presence is crucial for establishing their children’s trust in them and in the world in general. However, she observes, contrary to the present fashion being followed in many homes, there is no need to go overboard by trying to find special ways of entertaining them, like taking them to an amusement park or the pool. One important element in good parenting, Dr. Kochavi notes, is a relaxed emotional presence around one’s children. She suggests that parents should also spend time and try to have fun with children while performing chores, like food shopping or dealing with the laundry. What’s important at such times is to be attentive and for them to enjoy themselves and be warmly encouraged.

Children on Kibbutz Gesher, during the 1940s. A bygone era of four hours with one’s children every day, unhampered by laundry to fold, meals to cook and so on.Credit: Kibbutz Gesher Archives

‘Airport technique’

If that is indeed what’s needed to raise a happy family, then it can be said that the time that’s elapsed since the outbreak of the pandemic last year – when nuclear families stewed at home together – has actually been beneficial for the young generation. In the view of Dotan, the father mentioned above, this period did in fact change their family dynamic for the better, but the price he and his wife are paying for it is weariness, both on the individual levels and in terms of their relationship.

“Even the time my wife and I have to devote to sports has been significantly reduced,” he notes. “On the other hand, the children are more involved in what goes on at home – they set the table, clean the house together every Friday and even go to the grocery store on their own, which was unheard of before the coronavirus.”

But Dikla, the mother in a same-sex relationship, says that shes nothing good having come out of the intense pandemic period. “I feel I am less of a good mother than I was before, because I have a lot less patience for the girls,” she says. “They finally returned to their regular schedule and then came the holidays last month, and instead of looking forward to them happily, I felt that I had no air to breathe, that there was no time for myself and that we’re absolutely exhausted in terms of our parental abilities. I never before longed so much for October 1 to arrive. The girls are also sick of us. They want to see their friends, and in my opinion they need a routine outside of the house, even if they don’t know how to explain it exactly like that. I wouldn’t categorize this last year and a half as good for any of us.”

Liane Sela, CEO of the Adler Institute, which offers counseling to parents and educators, notes that in normal times many parents turn to the institute for tools to help maintain meaningful relationships with their offspring in light of the brief amount of time they spend together. Her most important advice to those parents, which is still relevant today, is to take an interest in children beyond the usual “checklist” – helping with homework, showers, meals – and to ask the children sincerely and openly how they feel, and to display empathy and consideration for them. “A conversation like that can be held even for a few minutes a day, and opens up a whole world for the children and for the parents too,” Sela explains.

She describes the period of lockdowns and quarantines as sparking “a loss of balance in terms of the parental presence in the children’s life.” The consequences of spending time together in close quarters will depend on the quality of the relations that existed beforehand.

Sela: “If communication in the home was good before, then now it may be even better. Let’s say that you and I enjoy being together, and once we had a little time and now we have a lot of time. Then, clearly, the additional amount of time will be good for us and we’ll know how to deepen our relationship and to get along when things are hard, because we have had good communication from the start. But if we are helpless in the face of conflicts, their number will increase now, and we will go on being helpless, but to a greater, more intense degree.

“In the end, it doesn’t matter how much time parents spend with their children; what’s important is the nature of their relationship with them. Studies show that parents are the most influential and meaningful figures in their children’s lives – even if they are not with them in the same house or don’t see them for a long time.”

According to Alcobi, the organizational adviser, “the social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic led to one good thing and also to another thing that was less good in terms of the balance between work and family. The good part is that parents are now indeed spending more time with their children, and at home in general. That has led many people to rethink their conditions at work and to seek greater flexibility, less fatigue and continued work from home, whether in a part-time or full-time way.

“What is less good is that a blurring has occurred between work and private life. Work has entered the home concretely and taken over all our waking hours. The solution to this challenge lies with employees and employers alike, and is rooted in the idea that we have the right to disconnect from our jobs. Employers need to remember that people work better when things are good for them and their family.”

Alcobi suggests something called the “airport technique,” which she writes about in “Heroes and Hormones: From Screen Slave to Superhero,” her 2016 book. “Airports have clear rules,” she says, in our interview. “Everyone has to arrive on time and show a valid passport, and even chronic latecomers and disorganized people show up on time there with a valid passport. As at the airport, in life, too, we need to set limits in order to carry out tasks that we find difficult.

“If I am a mother who has a hard time balancing my demanding job and my family, but I want to spend more time with my child,” she continues, “then the airport technique will involve setting one day a week aside when I pick him or her up from preschool. That way I will have no choice but to do it, because the child clearly cannot be left there.”

Afternoons together

For Israeli parents, In particular, picking up children from day care or school can definitely be a constraint, because many jobs entail working until the evening. But that is not the case everywhere. In Denmark, for example, the usual practice is for both parents to pick up their children and for the whole family to spend the afternoon hours together.

Says Shani Shavit, who advises couples on parenting and early-childhood education according to the Danish approach: “In Denmark the cultural focal point is the family, and studies show that this reduces the children’s and parents’ level of stress, has a beneficial influence on life at home and leads to children cooperating more with their parents and showing less resistance to their authority. In Israel, by contrast, the situation is more difficult for parents, because the way of life here means that they are preoccupied with multiple, other challenges, and also because the cultural attitude toward bringing up children in Israel is sometimes like that of a chore.”

Shavit’s suggestion? Parents must learn to treat child-related tasks – making supper, bathing, brushing teeth and so on – as quality time. “Supper,” she explains, “can be fun, and so can folding laundry and being put to bed. Everything can be turned into fun, and while doing it you can talk, laugh and come to the realization that this is quality time with the children. When the children enjoy things, they will cooperate more with us.”

Shavit also suggests that parents should schedule periods, even if they are short, when they are fully present with their kids, such as “a few minutes without phones and distractions, during which you read a book together, play music and dance together, or you just sit and cuddle. What’s important is that these times are defined as special: The moment I term something special, I elevate its value as an experience.

“One of the things children need most is attention, and their attention ‘container’ can definitely be filled qualitatively and meaningfully in very little time. There are many moments like these during the day, and we don’t always pay attention to them, or we take them for granted. I recommend looking for those moments, being aware of them and drawing the children’s attention to how nice things are at the moment, and that we’re having fun together. It does everyone good.”

Data about how much time parents and children spend together, whether during a pandemic or not, are of no interest to Shai Orr, author of “Miraculous Parenting” (in English) and “No Boundaries” (Hebrew). On the contrary, focusing on that variable irritates the veteran therapist and parenting expert.

“There’s this cultural desire to quantify everything,” Orr says. “But the moment that numbers are introduced into the realm of relationships, the deception begins. Every mom and dad knows that what’s important is not the number of minutes they spend with their children, but what happens in those minutes. Speaking about relationships categorically and numerically does a disservice to everyone.

“Let’s say a women gave up her career when she became a mother, in order to make time for bringing up her children. It’s true that she has more time with them than a working woman, but it’s possible that most of it is devoted to domestic chores that are unrelated to parenthood, or to arguments with the children – or to the opposite: that she becomes overly present in the children’s lives and is intruding on their privacy. In contrast, a different mother is at work until 6 P.M. or later, and doesn’t see her family for most of the day. But when she gets home her children feel that they can fall into her arms, talk to her and lean on her emotionally. She brings her whole self to the limited time she has with them. Which mother would you prefer? And which mother would the numbers prefer?”

On this issue, perhaps, as with most of the parenting dilemmas we confront in life, the best and most precise answer comes from the children themselves. In an extensive survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015 among 1,000 American children about their family life and their expectations from it, the majority replied in the negative to the question of whether they would want to spend more time with their parents. At the same time, their responses clearly showed a fervent wish by the children for their parents to be less stressed about their jobs, and them, during the time they do spend in their company.

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