10 Research-Proven Things Working Parents Can Stop Feeling Guilty About

Missing dinner, allowing screen time, going back to work: There are a lot of things we worry about that aren’t a big deal.

10 Research-Proven Things Working Parents Can Stop Feeling Guilty About
[Photo: Flickr user Eduardo Merille]

Talk to any group of working parents, and the word “guilt” comes up a lot. Whether it’s about leaving the office while your colleagues are still there, or if you’re spending enough time with your kids, it’s easy to feel like you’re not doing anything right.


But guess what? The situation isn’t as dire as you think. Here are 10 things that research finds you don’t need to feel bad about at all.

1. Going Back To Work After Leave

Most people think it’s okay for fathers to work. Feelings are more mixed on moms. But when moms do work, their daughters are more successful in the professional sphere. A 2015 Harvard Business School study found that in the U.S., daughters of working mothers earned 23% more than those whose mothers did not work for pay while they were growing up. The daughters of working mothers were also more likely to be in supervisory positions. As with this entire list, correlation is not causation, but the findings do indicate that working probably won’t hurt your children’s prospects in life.

2. Missing Family Dinners

Yes, plenty of studies have found that eating dinner together as a family is associated with good outcomes, such as reduced rates of juvenile delinquency. But this is the whole correlation/causation problem again. It turns out that families that are functional enough to have dinner together frequently have other things going for them that help children do well. It’s not dinner that’s working the magic. One study that looked at what happened when families changed the frequency of how often they ate dinner together found that rates of delinquency didn’t change. What matters is creating connections, and you can do that at breakfast or weekend lunch, or just by hanging out together.

3. Skipping The Nightly Bath

If it’s a fun ritual, great. But the American Academy of Dermatology guidelines say that children aged 6 to 11 need to be bathed “at least once or twice a week,” or when they get really dirty and smelly.

4. Not Packing Lunches

A study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior that analyzed packed lunches and school lunches found that school lunches scored better in most of the major categories. Packed lunches had more sugar and saturated fat; school lunches had more protein and fiber. That’s not to say you couldn’t do better than school lunch if you tried really hard. It’s just that, on average, parents don’t.

5. Hitting The Gym Instead Of Staying At Home With The Kids

Sometimes parents feel guilty for taking time to exercise at night or on weekends. But parents who appear to enjoy physical activity, and take time for it, become positive role models for their children. One Canadian study found that parental enjoyment of physical activity was positively correlated with young children being more active, too. Want to avoid the causation/correlation knot? Here’s another way to look at it: There are 168 hours in a week. If you work 40, and sleep eight per night (56 per week), that leaves 72 hours for other things. Using three of those hours for exercise probably won’t change the course of your children’s lives, but there’s reasonable evidence that exercise might make you live longer, so you’ll see more of your kids over time.


6. Letting The Kids Have Screen Time

The American Academy of Pediatrics announced last fall that it was starting the process of revising its screen-time guidelines for children (currently zero screen time for kids under age 2, and two hours a day for most older children). This is both acknowledging reality and noting that the evidence is not so clear cut that screen time is harmful. One paper that looked at when television was introduced in different parts of the U.S. found that there were no significant negative academic outcomes when young children were able to watch TV versus not. Indeed, there were actually some positive outcomes, such as for kids whose parents didn’t speak English. As with anything, you don’t want to overdo it, but if you need the kids to watch Dora the Explorer while you cook dinner, it’s fine.

7. Having A Messy House

There is no set amount of housework that needs to be done. Time-diary research has found that women devote much less time to housework now (and in recent decades) than in the 1960s. Men have made up some of the gap, but not all of it. People assume this is because more women work for pay than in the past, and that is part of it, but one analysis found that the housework decline was steeper among stay-at-home moms from the 1960s to the 1990s than among other women. Standards change, but most people’s houses are still livable. Indeed, our environments are so clean that some researchers are blaming the rise in childhood allergies on the lack of exposure to infectious agents.

8. Whether You’re Making Your Kids Happy

We all want our kids to be happy, but nature and nurture are funny things. Economist Bryan Caplan’s analyses of studies of identical and fraternal twins, and those raised apart, find that people appear to have natural happiness and self-esteem set points, and that over the long run, parenting doesn’t affect either much.

9. Not Watching The Kids Every Minute

Violent crime rates have cratered since the 1980s; even teenagers are much less likely to be victims of crime than they were a generation ago. Children are much less likely to die from accidents, too, than they were a generation ago. If you were babysitting other children at age 12, and nothing terrible happened, then likely, your 12-year-old can supervise himself for a bit while you run an errand.

10. Not Doing Educational Activities You Saw On Pinterest

It turns out that many parents who aren’t in the workforce aren’t doing them, either. According to a 2008 analysis from the American Time Use Survey, married stay-at-home moms of kids under age 6 spend, on average, 0.17 hours per day doing educational activities with their children, and 0.12 hours reading to them. One reason these numbers are so low is that a large-scale study like this averages in a lot of zeros: Only 16% of stay-at-home moms of young children do educational activities on any given day, and only 21% mentioned reading to their kids in their time diaries. Are these good things to do? Of course. But all kinds of parents find it hard to make time, even if you aren’t working 40-plus hours a week.


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at