Spending time with children 'more important than the mortgage'

By Simon Collins

A controversial new report says parents should forget about buying a house if necessary so they can afford time with their children.

The report, from the conservative Maxim Institute, says fathers, and mothers, can improve their children's behaviour, learning and happiness - but only if they put in the hours in active involvement.

The institute's policy and research manager, Alex Penk, says the New Zealand economy has been geared around families working some of the longest hours in the developed world, and needs to be regeared to let parents spend time with their children.

"For some families, placing fathering as a priority means a change in expectations of lifestyle such as renting rather than owning a home," he said. "But for other families it's even harder than that. The tax rates are such that low-income families subsidise childcare for the middle classes and the price of goods has adjusted upwards as families have higher incomes due to working longer hours and having two incomes."

Census figures out yesterday showed that the number of New Zealanders working at least 50 hours a week rose by 10,500 in the past five years to 415,600.

Although this represented a slight fall as a proportion of the total workforce to 22.7 per cent, this was still a higher proportion working such long hours than in any of 17 other developed countries except Japan.

"We might say that we value strong families and communities over money, but our lives just don't bear that out," Mr Penk said.

The report, written by father of two Daniel Lees, 31, found that 21 out of 24 studies internationally found that fathers' active involvement with their children made a measurable difference to their children's behaviour, psychological wellbeing, self-esteem, school attitudes and achievement and overall life satisfaction.

The studies used statistical techniques to measure how much various factors affected each outcome. They found that involved fathers had only a modest effect by themselves. One study found that fathers' involvement with their children when they were young explained 2 per cent of the differences in their happiness when they were young adults.

Mothers' involvement when they were young explained a similar 2 per cent of the differences and another 2 per cent could be put down to the joint involvement of mothers and fathers together. But fathers also had an indirect effect on other factors which affected their young adult children's happiness, such as the parents' education, their income, their marital conflicts, the mothers' emotional wellbeing and, to a lesser extent, the children's own physical health and friendships.

Another study found that children aged 11 to 14 were more likely to interact positively with children outside the home if their fathers were supportive and caring.

Another found that fathers' "challenging and stimulating play tends to prepare children for life outside of the home".

The studies found that these effects also applied to separated fathers if they stayed involved with their children, and to step-fathers, but to a lesser degree.

MAXIM INSTITUTE RECOMMENDATIONS

Fathers should
* Take their share of responsibility for their children's wellbeing and development.
* Spend time with them, be supportive and involved.

Families should
* Reconsider factors that drive fathers to work long hours, such as the desire for higher living standards.

Employers should
* Accept and support their employees' commitments outside work.
* Allow flexible working hours and working from home where possible.

Social services should
* Communicate with fathers as well as mothers because both affect the child's development.

Society should
* Encourage fathers' involvement with their children from infancy.
* Give higher priority to marriage and committed relationships.

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