So far, the entire burden of protecting our culture falls on those who both work and raise families.
Quality time is a great idea. But it's a shame to waste it on kids.
You know the concept. Job pressures and other demands on working parents have inevitably cut into the amount of time they can spend with their children. So they can compensate by making every minute they are together count. The formula is simple and elastic. One hour of quality time equals, perhaps, seven or eight hours of quantity time. No problem. No guilt.``You know I have to go to work,' a parent can repeat every morning as she hustles her kids off to the day-care center or the sitter. ``But tonight we'll have special time together.'
But even then, the quantity of quality time may be cut short. The kids are fussy and tired and need to be fed. Parents are exhausted and want to unwind. The phone rings (three cold sales calls, one play date arrangement, one long-winded relative). The office beeps about sending a fax that needs an immediate reply. There are dishes to do, laundry to start, baths, clutter to be picked up, a report to be finished before tomorrow.
And just because a parent has penciled in ``quality time' on her calendar at 7:35 doesn't mean a child is ready to cuddle up for a story, a chat about his day, a question about why Heather has two mommies and no daddy or a complaint about a playground bully at precisely 7:35.
So maybe it would be useful to try that wonderful concept of ``quality time' in other activities and relationships instead of limiting it to little kids. If children are supposed to be able to understand and accept the equation that a little quality time equals a lot of quantity time, why can't employers and other adults?
``Look, I'll only be in the office for an hour tomorrow,' you could explain to your boss. ``But it will be quality time.'
``This column will only be three paragraphs long,' you could tell your editor. ``But it will really be quality writing.'
``It will take about eight hours to fix your car, but all I can spare for you is an hour of quality time,' your auto mechanic could say.
``I don't have time to make all those sales calls today,' you can explain to your supervisor. ``But those I do make will be quality calls.'
``I won't make it into the office until afternoon,' you could e-mail your boss. ``But when I do see you, we can have quality time together.'
For now, though, it's only kids who are supposed to benefit from the idea of a little bit of quality time in lieu of a lot of quantity time.
In part that's because a parent's job description - found in dozens of child-care advice books - is almost infinitely expandable and impossible.
Even a stay-at-home mom with only one toddler couldn't do all the brain-stimulating, emotion-securing, motor-skill building, bonding and physical care that would benefit her offspring.
No one knows exactly how much face-time small children need with their parents for optimal development. Much depends on who is caring for them - and how well - when their parents aren't.
The studies that have been done are scary. Nine out of 10 day-care centers and nursery schools don't meet standards for staff, equipment and cleanliness, according to a 1995 national survey.
Four out of 10 are a hazard to children's health, safety and development.
Most day-care workers are inadequately trained, poorly paid and likely to stay on the job only a short time. No one monitors more informal group-sitter arrangements.
It's ironic that new research about brain development in the first years of life and the urgent need of young children for mental nourishment has coincided with the movement of millions of mothers into the workforce. More than half of the mothers of babies and toddlers now are employed outside the home and need to convince themselves that quality time equals quantity time equals freedom from guilt.
So far, the burden of this vast social change has fallen almost entirely on children and on family relationships. Even in many businesses that call themselves ``family friendly,' the corporate culture discourages workers from cutting corners on the job to meet their children's needs.
Almost no dads take advantage of paternity leaves, even in workplaces that provide the option. Women who opt for the ``mommy track' usually find that their careers stall.
It is time with children that's expendable, its loss glossed over with the idea that what really counts is quality, not quantity.
Women are in the workforce to stay. Their earnings are essential to their families and the taxes they pay to the government. They have educations they want to use, ambitions they want to fulfill, competencies they want to demonstrate, contributions they can make, a future to plan after the children grow up.
Already, whole new businesses are developing to do what women used to do in the home. Carry-out food is a new growth industry.
There are housecleaning services, laundry services, phone-order services, home nurses, nursing homes and day-care centers for ailing parents, day-care centers and sitters and after-school programs for kids.
But as new patterns of family life develop and solidify, it's time with children we must be vigilant to protect - quality time and quantity time.