Childcare – the 19-minute myth

Today’s Daily Mail rediscovers  an entertaining myth it first promulgated in 2006 – that mothers who work spend just 19 minutes a day with their children.

In a feature by Penny Marshall, prominently headlined by this claim, the source is named as the Office for National Statistics. But Ms Marshall’s source, I’ll lay a bet, was a cutting from the Daily Mail of 19 July 2006 by her colleague Becky Barrow, with a remarkably similar headline: “19 minutes – how long working parents give their children” The power of the cuttings database to perpetuate error can hardly be exaggerated.



The source for the original story was Table 5.11 of the ONS Time Use Survey 2005. This shows that for economically active people (not mothers) the time spent on caring for their children as a main activity was 19 minutes. But this is an average for all people, not just for those with children to care for.  The table makes plain that just 15 per cent of the people being counted participated in this activity. This is because, obviously, only a minority of people at any one time have children who require care.

It also explains, for the mathematically inexpert, that to work out the average time for those who participated in the activity you do a simple calculation. Average time for those who participated = average time for all people, divided by the proportion who participated, x 100 – or in this case, 19 ÷ 15 x 100, or 126.6 minutes. So people in full-time work who participate in childcare spend more than two hours a day on it as a main activity, and – as the table further makes clear - a further 106 minutes as a secondary activity, while doing something else such as cooking, cleaning or shopping.

Table 5.10 shows the time spent caring for children by the presence and age of children in the household. Unsurprisingly, this is higher when children are less than four years old – 136 minutes per day as a main activity, and another 106 minutes a day as a secondary activity, when averaged across all people aged between 16 and 49. The time spent is even greater if we count only those in this age group who participate in it – 179 minutes as a main activity, and 252 minutes as a secondary activity.

The question that would interest the Daily Mail, with its longstanding obsession with working mothers, is whether those in full-time work spend less time looking after their children than those who do not work, or work part-time. This can be worked out from Table 5.11, and the results are tabulated below. This table refers to people, not just mothers – the ONS data is not broken down by sex.


The result, unsurprisingly, is that economically inactive parents do spend more time with their children, but not dramatically more. Nobody with children, whatever their employment status, spends as little as 19 minutes day caring for them.  

Nor is it the case, as Penny Marshall asserts, that we are spending less and less time with our children. A comparison with an earlier time-use survey of 2000 showed that childcare occupied more, not fewer, hours in 2005 than in 2000. Granted, both these are now old surveys, but there is nothing more recent to rely on.

Could somebody insert a note in the Daily Mail database recording this, so it isn’t trotted out again? That may be too much to hope for.