Ask Amma

Quantity Time

In When on 3 July 2012 at 8:11 pm

My daughter seems to think time is elastic. Even for places she wants to go, if she happens to be doing something, that can as well be done later, she just doesn’t stop and get ready. “I am doing this puzzle,” she might say, even if it is 500 pieces and she just started. Then I have to bargain with her, can you just finish this one cloud? “Can I just finish the sky?” “How about this cloud and this bird?” etc.

– Amma of 9 year-old

Indulge me while I think aloud on this question, which I recently asked myself.

Nothing very profound here, but just a vote for quantity time unburdened by the pressure of being quality time. Have you heard of “quality time?” Of course you have. It was a big thing like a major discovery 20 or 30 years ago. You may have seen Doonesbury call its bluff (what if your child needs more than 15 minutes?) I am not sure if it is called something else now.  Glennon Melton, who says she “can’t even carpe 15 minutes in a row,” may have inadvertently shortened it to a few quality moments, what she calls “kairos time.”

Kairos time may seem like a kind of free lunch – the ultimate Return on Investment (RoI) when time is subjected to economic theory such as the law of diminishing return.

This law would have it that if something done for 1 hour can be done for half an hour, the enjoyment will be more intense and the other half hour may be spent in another gainful pursuit, further increasing RoI. But what if the very fact of the time limit impairs the enjoyment?

More on the economics: Philosopher Charles Karelis, says in The Persistence of Poverty that

When there is more than enough of [leisure], additional hours add progressively less and less pleasure.

Who hasn’t heard a child wail, “there is nothing to do!”

“Nothing,” as physicist Lawrence Krauss says, “is unstable.”

When I hear that wail, I scramble to set up activities.  (Quick!  Before the big bang!)  My daughter likes some of that, to be sure.  But she also defends her free time long before I could have guessed that it has run out.

Because nothing is really not nothing.

In fact, I have found at times that it might even be easier to interrupt my daughter when she is doing something, than when she is doing nothing.  Or what appears to be nothing.  Thinking she might be bored, even before she can utter the phrase “nothing to do,” or maybe just seeking to compensate for yesterday when I was too busy, I will approach her and say, “Khiyali, do you -”

Before I can finish, I am met with a version of the startle reflex.   “What?” she says, tensing, alarm in her eyes.  I start over:  “Are you free right now?”  “No!”  She will say.  I don’t ask what she is doing.  She is too busy to take such questions.

As increased leisure brings diminishing pleasure, Karelis says, so does decreased leisure bring diminished regret:

But the notable point for our purposes is that the extra misery produced by one more hour at the desk, and the extra disappointment and resentment produced by missing one more anniversary, school play, or golf game tend to become less and less as the totals mount.  As the absolute losses accumulate, the individual case gets less and less attention.  Eventually, for instance, children become inured to the no-shows of a workaholic parent, and the parent … becomes inured to the resentment that does come his way.

Many a cautionary tale in the overworked parent genre brings up the “school play” as the missed event.   What about missing things that aren’t even things, don’t even happen, and one can’t even know that one has missed?  I am talking about the time that is random and uncertain, where one may do or not do anything, plan one thing but do another, or do nothing.  When one misses out on such time, what has one missed?

*   *   *   *   *

Several years ago I remember passing by a playground on the way home. My daughter, age 5, wanted to go, and I told her that we could go for half an hour. Or, I offered, “we could go tomorrow and stay longer.”  We could even do both, I added.  What we could not do was stay longer today.  She opted to go “tomorrow.”  I was surprised that she passed an immediate opportunity to go to the playground because it did not meet her requirements. I appreciate the value of being able to do something without time limits, but unfortunately I seem to find myself in the role of time-keeper more than I would like.

To avoid this, one would need:

  • to drop some activities.
  • play along with her games for as long as she wants

Drop activities – done! The “as long as she wants” part of is hard, but I have developed a new appreciation for playing along. Though I am, alas, not so childlike to delight in all of the games for their own sake, I have found that while playing, conversations flow freely and can often run deep. Nearly every material of play doubles as a stimulus of ideas … I have found this to be true whether we are modelling with clay, building with blocks or magnetix, making up stories with dolls or moving water from location to location.

Secondly, I find that spending quantity time with my child just helps us get along better. I know this sounds less than ideal, as it is a “means to an end” that offers itself to the “quality-time” mongers who seek to make parenting more efficient and less time-consuming.  But in my experience, the quantity is the quality that my child seeks in our time together. Limited time doing some amazing, fascinating thing is just not going to cut it for her. Sometimes even without time limits the very expectation of RoI is a killjoy. My daughter has told me, in so many words, “I could miss the opportunity of a lifetime because am doing something else, even if it is very ordinary, at the time.”

Since writing this I have found quite a bit of literature on Quantity Time. The question is not limited to nuclear families in which members are together for relatively few hours each day. Apart from families living close to the Continuum Concept, where children are free to come and go as they please, and welcome at the workplace, I don’t see anyone living with a sense of abundance when it comes to time. Whether you have 6 hours together as a family or 16 (or 2!), how you manage them, as well as the remaining hours while the child is elsewhere, will determine whether you try to extract value from every hour (or quarter-hour), or allow for the sense of boundlessness that stretches over time that is unscheduled and its quality unmonitored.

Calvin: There's never enough time to do all the nothing you want.

Do you have enough time to do nothing?
from Bill Watterson, The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes, p213

  1. Time has become a challenge now that I have started working outside the home, going to office every day. Disha has adapted to the change better than me, but there are times when her frustration shows. Appa Karthik has been great at bringing some semblance. He has this unhurried manner and still manages to get work done. He makes sure that Disha is not upset in the morning when we are all leaving home for work. And when he gets back in the evening her makes sure Disha has his undivided attention. He does something very similar to what you have listed in your post-drop activities and play along for however long she wants.


    • Yes, Chetana, I remember how much support you & Karthik had at home with your cousins and sister around. Does your sister still live near by? Do the cousins still visit often? Nice that Disha and her grandparents have quantity time for each other.


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