Time is fleeting, especially the notion of 'quality time'

ALICE STEINBACH

October 01, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Generally speaking, most people I know wish they had more of the following three things: money, time and hair. The order of priority, naturally, varies with each person.

I have decided my first choice -- after a brief flirtation with the category of hair -- would be: time. Not that I couldn't use more money or more hair. But somehow both these commodities seem attainable. And both seem to have infinite possibilities. Especially the hair thing.

Time, on the other hand, is finite. And non-specific, too, since most of us really haven't a clue as to how much of the thing we call time has been allotted to us.

Of course, the point has been made -- by philosopher Albert Camus, no less -- that to have money is to have time. Which would seem to make a case for choosing money as one's first priority and getting a free ride with the category of time.

But at the risk of being accused of Camus-bashing, I disagree that money brings with it the gift of more time.

It seems to me that once people start accumulating money they often start devoting more of their time to acquiring even larger amounts of money. The paradox, of course, is that such people are left with less time to do all the things they originally imagined they would do if only they had the money to do them.

It is this paradox, I believe, that led to the invention of something called: Quality Time. Which raises a couple of questions: When did the idea of Quality Time become a part of our culture? And what exactly is Quality Time?

Of course, it's hard to come up with a precise answer as to when any concept enters the culture as a mainstream idea. But a computer search suggests that the so-called "child-rearing experts" began describing Quality Time, as we know it, in the early 1970s. It seemed to pop up as a concept as the number of "two-career families" escalated dramatically.

A typical early approach to the idea of Quality Time appears in the following paragraph from a 1977 Business Week article titled "The Corporate Woman: When Mothers are also Managers." A panel of working mothers was assembled and Business Week summed up their attitudes this way:

"The time they spend with their children is 'quality time, not quantity time,' say the mothers, echoing the claim of many executive fathers, and the children's home life is frequently more stimulating than that of their playmates."

Precisely what constitutes Quality Time was and remains vague. As best I can figure it out, Quality Time means paying your undivided attention to a significant other for a specified amount of time. Which, if you stop to think about it, is precisely what a psychoanalyst does.

It is based on the idea that intense periods of togetherness will always be positive ones. And that the person on the other end of your Quality Time plan is always in sync with your emotional and physical schedule.

Still, it's a concept that caught on. Big. By the middle of the 1980s we have movie star Don Johnson telling a reporter how he made time in his busy schedule for his family: "The time I spend with my family is quality time," he said.

But by the mid 1980s some sociologists were beginning to question the Quality Time concept: "I think the biggest myth of the eighties -- the one that replaced 'get married and live happily ever after' is the concept of quality time," said child issues expert Ellen Galinsky in a 1985 magazine article.

To be honest, I have always been suspicious of Quality Time. My nagging suspicion is that Quality Time is located somewhere in the vicinity of Spare Time and not too far from Clock-watching Time. It is a suspicion based on experience.

Like other mothers -- and not only those who work outside the home -- the time pressures of living a life and running a family made me want to believe in the concept of Quality Time. And while fathers sometimes use the expression to describe their relationship to the family -- wives as well as children -- it's the mothers who stagger most under the burden of guilt over how to prioritize their time so that children get their fair share.

And it strikes me that the whole idea of Quality Time -- which may have started as an idea to help mothers, particularly working mothers, cope with guilt feelings -- should be dumped.

What children really need, it seems to me, is both quality time and quantity time spent with many different adults throughout ,, the course of a day.

In other words, children need to be more than part of a one-parent family or even a two-parent family. What they need to be is part of a community.

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