Ottawa Citizen

Sunday August 15, 1999

Spend 15 minutes a day with your child, expert urges

Jennifer Pritchett
The Ottawa Citizen

Marguerite Kelly: 'It takes hard work and hard thinking to rear good people.'

Time means more than money when it comes to raising children, says a leading child-care expert.

Marguerite Kelly, syndicated columnist and author of the best-selling The Mother's Almanac, maintains middle-class parents are too focused on providing material things for their children.

"A kid doesn't remember the treats a parent works two hours to buy," she says. "It's better to work less ... and spend time with the kid during the time you saved because it's the making of memories the kid will remember most."

Parents have to remember that communication is key.

How much time is enough? Mrs. Kelly suggests a minimum 10-15 minutes of undivided attention to each child each day.

"This means that you're not stirring the pot, you're not answering the phone, you're not looking over the kid's head to watch the evening news," she says. "You're just talking to the child, interacting with the child on whatever it is the child wants to talk about.

"It's amazing how many people don't do this."

Mrs. Kelly, who has been the authoritative voice on sensible child-rearing for more than 20 years in the United States, blames the increasing demands parents face on a rise in expectations when it comes to material wealth.

The mother of four, who is now a grandmother, maintains families nowadays eat out more often, buy larger houses and spend more on cars.

"What were luxuries in the 1970s are necessities today," she says. "Kids didn't have to have a fancy birthday party. It isn't unlikely for a birthday party in a middle class family to cost as much as $200-400. The cakes aren't homemade and there's professional entertainment. So parents are having to work, or thinking they have to work harder, to bring in the money they need."

Mrs. Kelly, who advocates a brand of child-rearing that is adventurous, open and decidedly old-fashioned, says she practices what she preaches. And she has four accomplished children to prove it. It's a job she maintains has forced her to be extremely creative.

Her eldest, Katy, is an illustrator and writer for USA Today, son Michael is an editor, daughter Meg writes novels, and Nell, the youngest, is a film editor-turned-teacher.

Two of the children, Michael and Katy, as well as their father, Tom Kelly, have received nominations for the Pulitzer Prize.

Mrs. Kelly, who lives in a big, old three-storey house in Washington, attributes at least some of her success in raising her own children to the fact that she could work at home as a writer.

And in the 1990s, this trend has become more popular than ever before with increasing numbers of parents finding ways to work at home in order to spend time with their families.

But even with this benefit, Mrs. Kelly doesn't pretend that it was easy.

"It takes hard work and hard thinking to rear good people," she told The Women's Quarterly recently.

"The job is interesting, although the hours are bad, starting from the first day."

She started the "Family Almanac" column two decades ago shortly after Doubleday published The Mother's Almanac (co-authored by Elia Parsons) in 1975. The book has sold steadily since then (about 800,000 copies), and the quick-witted grandmother has been providing words of wisdom that have proven to be effective.

While she clearly advocates parents to spend as much time with their children as possible, she is quick to point out that she favours women in the workforce.

Mrs. Kelly maintains the key to being a better parent is to choose what's important -- and that might mean something as simple as letting the housework wait. When it needs to be done, kids can help, she adds.

"People shouldn't think they are supposed to keep the perfect house. Let the bathtub be -- it won't grow up and leave home," she jokes.

Mrs. Kelly doesn't believe, however, that day care should be implemented simply because parents are too busy. She points to other solutions.

"I think the family should really look at their budget and the way they live and ask themselves: 'Do we really need this cappuccino maker?' or 'How much will I save on clothes and transportation and lunches if I don't go to work?'

"I think they'd be surprised to find out they'd do just about as well working half time."

Copyright 1999 Ottawa Citizen