Canada's dads are the best

Fathers here interact with their children more than any other nation's do, and parents average an hour more daily with children than they did 30 years ago

By Erin Anderssen and Anne McIlroy
Saturday, April 3, 2004 Globe and Mail

Canadian fathers are leading the Western world in storybook readings, bedtime duty and general playtime, new international research says. And they're doing more dishes than ever, so that Mom can join in the fun.

A study has found that preschoolers in Canada can count on an extra hour of undivided attention from their parents each day, compared with what their moms and dads received from their own parents 30 years ago.

The study, which analyzed the 24-hour diaries of parents from eight different countries, also found that North American fathers (Canadian fathers were slightly ahead) spent the most time about one hour and 20 minutes a day focused on their children. They outpaced Italian men, in last place, by a full 50 minutes. Canadian mothers, on the other hand, fall more in the middle of the pack.

The research confirms the views of a majority of Canadians. In a recent Globe and Mail/CTV poll of about 700 parents, conducted by Ipsos-Reid, almost 70 per cent of mothers and fathers agreed they spent more time with their children than their parents had. These findings demonstrate a significant shift in Canadian parenting styles in the past three decades.

According to the diaries of 1,000 parents with at least one child under 5 in 1998, they were spending on average 2.3 hours each day on specific interactions with the children, such as playing, reading stories, or putting them to bed. That's not counting another four hours spent in the child's presence.

"The message that people have been receiving since the seventies, for example, is that it's important to read to your kids; it's important to spend quality time with them," said Anne Gauthier, the University of Calgary researcher who conducted the study. "And we're really picking that up in the data."

In fact, the mothers and fathers surveyed by The Globe and Mail ranked "lack of attention from parents" in early childhood as by far the most significant cause of behaviour problems and poor academic achievement later in life. They rated parental inattention as a more severely negative risk factor than all other factors genetics, low income or social difficulties with peers combined.

To squeeze in the extra hour with their children, Canadian parents are giving up on sleep, TV viewing and tidy homes. The study found, for instance, that for mothers, the extra time with children was financed almost entirely by a decline in housework. Fathers partly compensated by doing 36 more minutes of household chores a day than they did in the past. Roland Collins, father to Theo, 5, and Benjamin, 2, says he usually cleans up while his wife begins bathing the boys around 7:30 p.m. Then they each put one child to bed, reading to them and lying beside them until they fall asleep, usually by 9 p.m.

Mr. Collins, a consultant who lives in Ottawa, works from home, so he sometimes can spend time with his children during the day, when they are with their nanny. From time to time he picks Theo up where the school bus drops him off from kindergarten. He said he spends more time with his children than his father did with him. And he was aware of being part of a larger trend. "Something is happening there," he said.

Fathers have made the largest shift in the last 30 years, though Dr. Gauthier cannot explain why North American men have become especially diligent about making time for their children, more so even than fathers in countries like Norway and Sweden, with their renowned parenting policies.

Over all, Canadian women still spend more time on child care, but the gender gap has narrowed significantly. In the 1970s, a father's time with children averaged about 40 per cent of the time a mother spent; by the late 1990s, it had jumped to 67 per cent.

Fathers and mothers are, in fact, almost tied when it comes to reading and playing. But mothers remain the main providers of infant care, and of children's personal care.

"It is really dads who have been changing their behaviour," said Dr. Gauthier, "possibly in response to social pressure that they should be much more involved."