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October 2017

Differences in Parents’ Time Use between the Summer and the School Year

Elizabeth Weber Handwerker and Lowell Mason

Parents can face different constraints on their time during school vacations than during the school year. Although different schools follow different calendars, summer months are frequently a time when children are not in school. Using data from the American Time Use Survey, this Spotlight on Statistics looks at differences in time use between the summer and the school year among parents of school-age children.

Employment patterns of parents vary little between school year and summer

About 86 percent of fathers aged 25 to 54 with biological, step-, or adopted children aged 6 to 17 in the household work full time and 5 percent work part time. These numbers do not vary significantly between summer and the school year. About 48 percent of mothers aged 25 to 54 with biological, step-, or adopted children aged 6 to 17 in the household work full time, during the summer and the school year. Twenty-one percent of these mothers work part time during the school year, and 18 percent work part time during the summer. This difference is statistically significant.

Parents are more likely to spend time caring for household members during the school year

Mothers were more likely than fathers to spend time doing household activities during an average day. The percentage of mothers and fathers doing household activities did not vary significantly between the school year and the summer. Both mothers and fathers were significantly more likely to spend time caring for and helping household members during the school year than during the summer. Mothers were significantly more likely to spend time doing work and work-related activities during the school year than during the summer. 

Mothers were also more likely than fathers to spend time on consumer purchases during an average day. The percentage of mothers and fathers spending time shopping did not vary significantly between the school year and the summer. Both mothers and fathers were significantly more likely to spend time doing sports, exercise, and recreation during the summer than during the school year. Both mothers and fathers were significantly more likely to spend time doing volunteer activities during the school year than during the summer. Both mothers and fathers were significantly more likely to spend time traveling (including commuting) during the school year than during the summer.

Parents are more likely to spend time caring for children in various ways during the school year

Both mothers and fathers were significantly more likely to spend time caring for and helping children in the household during the school year than during the summer. This kind of help can be broken into many specific tasks, many of which vary between the summer and the school year in the fraction of parents who report spending any time doing these tasks. Both mothers and fathers were significantly more likely to spend some time physically caring for their children during the school year than in the summer. This is time spent laying out clothes for children, waking children, feeding children, bathing children, dressing children, helping children get dressed, getting children ready for school, tucking children in at night, and so forth.

Mothers are significantly more likely to spend time reading to their children during the school year than during the summer. Mothers are more significantly more likely to spend time playing (both sports and engage in play other than sports) with their children during the summer than during the school year. Mothers are significantly more likely to spend time organizing and planning for their children or attending meetings and school conferences on behalf of their children during the school year than during the summer. Mothers are significantly more likely to spend time looking after children (as a primary activity, rather than while doing something else) during the summer than during the school year. Both mothers and fathers are more significantly more likely to spend time helping children with homework, attending children’s events, waiting for children, picking up and dropping off children, and talking with children during the school year than during the summer. Mothers are significantly more likely to spend time on activities related to their children’s health, such as taking children to medical appointments, during the school year than during the summer.

The school year is different for parents in how much time they spend doing many kinds of activities

For mothers, there are statistically significant increases in time spent caring for and helping household members (16 more minutes per day), as well as for work and work-related activities (33 more minutes per day), during the school year, compared with during the summer. In addition, mothers have statistically significant decreases in the amount of time they spend sleeping (15 minutes less per day); doing household activities (9 minutes less per day); eating and drinking (3 minutes less per day); socializing, relaxing, and leisure (20 minutes less per day); and doing sports, exercise, and recreation (10 minutes less per day) during the school year versus during the summer.

For fathers, there is a statistically significant increase in the amount of time they spend on caring for and helping household members (15 more minutes per day) during the school year as opposed to during the summer. Fathers also experience statistically significant decreases in the amount of time they spend on household activities (11 minutes less per day); eating and drinking (3 minutes less per day); and sports, exercise, and recreation (9 minutes less per day) during the school year, relative to the summer.

Parents spend more time caring for their children while doing other activities during the summer

Although both mothers and fathers spend more time caring for and helping household members during the school year, relative to the summer, there are other activities that parents spend more time doing while caring for children during the summer than during the school year. For mothers, there are statistically significant increases in the average amount of time spent caring for children aged 12 and younger (“secondary childcare”), while also doing household activities (7 minutes per day); eating and drinking (5 minutes per day); socializing, relaxing, and leisure (21 minutes per day); and sports, exercise, and recreation (8 minutes per day) during the summer, relative to the school year.

For fathers, there also are statistically significant increases in the average amount of time they spend doing secondary childcare while also doing household activities (7 minutes per day); eating and drinking (3 minutes per day); socializing, relaxing, and leisure (9 minutes per day); and sports, exercise, and recreation (9 minutes per day) during the summer, relative to the school year.

Overall, mothers of children aged 6-12 averaged an additional 31 minutes per day caring for their children in the summer than during the school-year, and fathers of children aged 6-12 averaged an additional 18 minutes per day caring for their children in the summer than during the school-year.

Parents spend about 14 minutes more per day helping their children during the school year

Caring for and helping household members has three major components that involve children: caring for and helping household children, activities related to household children’s education, and activities related to household children’s health. The last category is not shown here because the average time use per day in this category is quite small, both during the summer and the school year.

Mothers spend an average additional 13 minutes per day on activities related to their children’s education, such as helping children with homework and attending meetings and school conferences on school-year weekdays than on summer weekdays. There is little overall difference in the amount of time mothers spend caring for and helping children in other ways (such as physical care, reading to children, playing with children, and so forth) on weekdays between the school year and the summer.

Fathers spend an average 7 additional minutes per day on caring for and helping children and an additional 7 minutes per day on activities related to their children’s education on school year weekdays than on summer weekdays. Mothers spend an average additional 7 minutes per day on caring for and helping children and an additional 4 minutes per day on activities related to their children’s education on school year weekends than on summer weekends. Fathers spend an average 14 additional minutes per day on caring for and helping children and an additional 2 minutes per day on activities related to their children’s education on school-year weekends than on summer weekends.

More mothers are helping children at 7am during the school year than in summer

For mothers, the greatest difference between the summer and the school year in the percentage of mothers who are caring for and helping children at any time of day (6 to 7 percent) occurs in the morning, between 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. The second largest difference (3 to 4 percent) occurs from 3:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., and the third largest difference (3 percent) occurs from 7:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. From 8:15 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., from 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and again after 9:00 p.m., the difference between the summer and the school year in the percentage of mothers caring for or helping their children is not statistically significant.