Do separated parents really spend less time with their children?

Brother and sister reading a book. Photo: Mostphotos
Photo: Mostphotos

A new study in Sociology based on Danish data, shows that the link between family type and how much time parents spend with their children, is more complex than what has previously been shown. Although parents in non-traditional families at first glance tend to spend less time with their children, this can to a large extent be explained by socioeconomic factors. At the same time, parents in non-traditional families tend to belong to a group of parents that like to spend more time with children than parents ending up in nuclear families.

The results are based on responses from 595 parents in Denmark who answered surveys about what they do with their time, the Danish Time Use Survey, DTUS, in both 2001 and 2008. All parents in the selection of this study had at least one child with whom they also lived. The parents answered questions on how much time they spent on non-developmental time such as transporting the children to different places, taking care of the child’s basic needs such as feeding and dressing them, and developmental time such as reading, talking to or playing with the children.

Authors and sociologists Peter Fallesen and Michael Gähler compared parents in three different family types: traditional nuclear families, single parents with children, and parents who formed a new family, so called reconstituted families.

At first glance, separated parents and parents in reconstituted family types spend less time with their kids than parents in traditional families, according to the study. But these do typically also have lower socio-economic status, earning less money and with a lower level of education. So, when the researchers control for background features such as income and education, there is little difference in how much time parents spend on children depending on family type. In other words – the differences on time spent on children that the researchers first found, can be explained by socioeconomic factors rather than family type.

Another factor complicates this matter even more. Parents likely to end up in non-traditional family types have lower social-economic background, but are also likely positively selected on how much time they spend on children. This means that parents that are prone to spend more time with their children are also more likely to be found among non-traditional family types, especially a reconstituted family.

If you consider this positive selection – which means that parents who separate in general belong to a group who are interested in spending more time with the children – you get a negative effect of the time spent with children after the separation or divorce.
But are parents who end up in a split family situation really prone to spend more time with the children? It might seem quite counter-intuitive.

The researchers theorise around this and suggest that you can divide parents into different groups, based on their preference for children, partner and family. One group has a strong preference for the nuclear family. When they enter into a relationship, that nuclear family package also includes having and raising children.

And then there is the opposite group – people who have extremely strong preferences for children, but who don’t care that much whether they have a partner or not. They are more likely to end up in a reconstituted family or as single parents.

The conclusion? Maybe that a separation does not automatically bring about less time spent with children. Instead of a simple causal link, there are more complex relationships that are intertwined.


Fallesen, Peter, Michael Gähler, ”Family type and parents’ time with children: Longitudinal evidence for Denmark”, Acta Sociologica. DOI:


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