In this review, we have identified existing measures of family time and discussed each of their strengths and limitations. We summarize these important issues here, as well as highlight additional measurement gaps.
Quantity, quality and regularity. This review has revealed that many dimensions of family time exist. Describing the quantity of time that parents and children spend in activities is one way to identify whether parents are investing instrumentally, emotionally and cognitively into their families. While time diaries and surveys have been fairly adequate at capturing adult time spent in routine activities (although respondents tend to over-report time in housework (Robinson, 1997)), some uses of time are difficult to capture but are nonetheless important. For example, it is possible to accomplish two activities at once, such as cooking dinner while handling tasks on the phone or talking to one's child about her day. The management of household tasks, such as taking responsibility for making sure household functions get addressed and assigning the tasks to be completed, is also an important chore that is not typically captured by items that tap into time spent in specific chores (Hoffmeister & Edgell, 2003).
Researchers have also emphasized the need to better measure and probe the quality of time spent in interactions. As explained earlier, the HOME inventory identifies parent-child activities that are associated with positive child development. From a child development perspective, however, the effect of time spent in activities with family members might also depend upon the interactions taking place within the activity. For example, simply watching television with one's child might signal to a child that a parent cares, but interactions and communication between parents and their children regarding the content of television shows or daily activities may strengthen this signal, while also allowing parents to convey important family values. This is not to suggest that all time spent together as a family needs to be maximized to fulfill both child development and other purposes; however, along with others, we are suggesting that attention to the absolute amount of time in certain activities may not reveal interactions that may have a significant and positive influence on children.
It is also possible that there is value to children of their parents just "being there" (Bianchi 1999), but this remains an unanswered question. Time when mothers are available but not directly involved with their children is a main reason for a time differential between employed and non-employed mothers' time spent with their children. And yet, the availability of cellular phones and beepers might help reduce this differential. Research is just beginning to address these issues (see Bianchi 1999).
Finally, researchers would also like to know more about the regularity of activities. Fiese et al. (Fiese et al., 2002) suggest that identifying routines is important: routine or 'regular' interactions can foster adaptation in times of family crises, such that maintaining regular routines, such as dinner time or family gatherings, can help children cope with disruptive events (e.g. transitions in family structure). Also, rituals are distinct but important time use that influences family members' sense of belonging.
Unit of analysis. Most measures of family interaction are focused on whether families are fulfilling the task of childrearing successfully. The interactions are often from the perspective of the child or parent, and they can shed light on whether an individual child is receiving adequate parental attention. Accordingly, results reveal information on the happenings within that dyad but they cannot necessarily be generalized to other relationships within the family, or to interactions that include the whole family. Measuring what other family members are doing in the household would give us a more complex glimpse of how families spend time together (Bianchi, 1997). Measuring family time from the perspective of the whole family is also important. Time spent together helps families shape a unique identity, and helps individuals within the family unit feel a sense of belonging that is important for healthy development. Further, spending time with family members and extended family members helps to build individual access to lasting resources of social support. The importance of family rituals (differentiated from routines as having an affective component) such as holidays, birthdays, weddings or other significant events is under-studied.
Attention to cultural differences. Attention to cultural differences in the use of family time has been limited. This is an area that would likely benefit from qualitative and observational research. A very insightful example is present in the work of Martini (1996). Martini observes the communication exchange between family members in a typical, in fact, probably the most measured, family activity: eating meals together. The author found that Caucasian-American families held different types of conversations compared to Japanese-Americans — the former were more likely to focus on the individual experiences and the child, while the latter mainly discussed group activities and shared experiences. Observations of the content of communication of an otherwise simply measured activity (eating dinner) yields information on how families transmit their values, and how this varies by culture. Similar analyses of other 'routine' activities necessary for family maintenance may also be fruitful.
Attention to developmental and lifecourse changes. Time use is not static across the lifecourse. The transition to parenthood remains an important event for the re-organization of couple time, often resulting in an unequal division of domestic labor. In terms of child development, young children are more demanding on parental time than are older children, although Bianchi makes the point that when the parental work day is over, children themselves may have limited time available to spend with their parents (2000). Adolescents, in particular, require fewer parental time investments for their upkeep (clothing, feeding, etc), but they do require other types of time investments by parents, such as monitoring of their activities and whereabouts (Furstenberg, Cook, Eccles, Elder, &Sameroff, 1999). The ratio of needed time to actual time may vary as children age, but, to our knowledge, empirical estimates have not been attempted.
Theoretical gaps. The collection of improved measures of time use has the potential to expand theoretical perspectives, and therefore also improve our understanding of patterns. In particular, closer examination of time in primary and secondary tasks may help inform gender theories on the division of labor. Measures of family time spent together will be useful toward the development of perspectives on family routines and rituals. Collecting time use information of multiple persons in the same household, simultaneously, will be helpful towards informing family systems theory. Understanding time use may help inform how healthy marriages are sustained and how strong families are maintained. Better data may also inform debates about the quality versus the quantity of family time.
The need to collect measures regularly. Although the availability of data on the amount of family time has increased, our most recent national estimates of family time are now more than five years old (for example, PSID time diaries were collected in 1998). Given the changing work schedules of parents, economic shifts, and changes in children's living arrangements, there is a need for more current and up-to-date information. Moreover, although researchers have been able to create a historical picture of family time by piecing together data from various surveys (see (Bianchi, 2000; Fiese et al., 2002), this historical picture is incomplete. Because of the lack of continuous data, researchers have been limited to comparing estimates of family time over a small number of years (e.g., 1965 to 1998). These comparisons may mask variations in patterns that occurred in between data collection efforts. Without the availability of regularly collected measures of family time, the ability of researchers and policy makers to track trends in family time will be limited to patching together data from multiple sources that may not use comparable definitions. Finally, trend data are important for evaluating the implications that changes in government assistance programs, federal laws (i.e., Family Leave Act), and work-place policies (i.e., flex-time, telecommuting, etc) may have on family time.
Designing longitudinal studies of family time. In addition to surveys that measure family time and activities at regular points in time, longitudinal studies of family time are needed. Research using cross-sectional data suggests that children's educational achievement, risk behaviors and parental marital stability are associated with family time (S. Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001; Presser, 2000). However, longitudinal studies are needed to address issues of causality and to further investigate the processes by which family time is associated with child outcomes. It is important to note that longitudinal studies of family time need to include measures of family background characteristics, as well as measures of child outcomes measures. Care should be taken to ensure that the list of child outcomes variables is not limited to negative outcomes or risk behaviors, but also includes positive outcomes and behaviors. Longitudinal studies should include, whenever feasible, data from multiple family members and perspectives. Ideally, longitudinal studies should include items that measure both the amount of family time and the kinds of activities that parents and children engage in together. Lastly, special attention should also be given to include items that capture the quality, meaning and nature of family interactions.