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Time Use

Conceptions Of Time In Families

Our dominant approach for studying time in families has been to examine, through time diary studies, how much time family members devote to the activities of paid work, unpaid work in the home, leisure activity, and time for personal care. National time diary studies offer insights into the patterns of time use within families and as they change historically (see Trends below for a review of key trends). Many other conceptualizations of time, however, have relevance for understanding time in families.


Circular models. Circular models of time are driven by nature. Time is viewed as a cycle of seasons, the cyclical rhythm of day and night, and through the human cycle of birth and death. For families, cyclical patterns of work and rest, planting and harvesting, celebration and mourning, or growth and decay are tied to the cycles of the natural world. Circular models of time continue to dominate the patterns of experience for hunting and gathering and agricultural societies.


Linear models. The past, present, and the future give rise to a conception of time that is organized in a linear fashion. We think of the arrow of time or the march of time as we move progressively and unidirectionally through time without any return to the past. Individual aging, the progression of families through their developmental stages, and history itself are all linear ways of thinking about time. Families have linear histories marked by a series of events, including birthdays, deaths, and anniversaries. Although some of the rituals that are used to mark these events are repeatable and cyclical, they typically represent the idea of progression through time—a directionality of success (as in marriage anniversaries), maturity (as in birthdays), or accomplishment (as in graduations). In each of these, movement along a time line is the implicit focus of the celebration.

Biology and time. At the root of the individual experience of time is the process of change and development that is part of the aging process. From pimples to wrinkles, bodies provide the tangible signs of individual aging and the passage of time. These developmental changes are also the basis for social evaluations of being on-time or off-time with respect to family transitions. Becoming pregnant as a teen is therefore deemed early, whereas a pregnancy at forty-seven is considered late. Like all living organisms, human beings experience the rhythm of their own circadian clocks, which regulate a variety of behavioral and physiological rhythms. These are associated with twenty-four-hour cycles of temperature and light and include sleep-wake cycles, feeding cycles, body temperature cycles, and a variety of hormonal and metabolic oscillations. Illnesses also precipitate a reordering of time in families to accommodate doctor's visits and reallocate tasks left undone as a result of the illness.

Social organization of time. Although clocks are a relatively recent invention in the history of humankind, they are now central to the organization of complex societies. As a result, children are socialized from early on to pay attention to schedules and to learn the social value of punctuality and the organization of time. Whereas families were once more likely to live and work together, they now require sophisticated time scheduling tools to manage the intersection of many independent schedules. Families routinely disperse into their own temporal schedules, which not only requires that children be equipped with time skills early on, but that the family be diligent about managing their time together and apart.

As part of social organization, time is expressed through explicit rules and informal norms that govern social life. Hence, work organizations have rules about the hours of work, businesses dictate the hours of commerce, and schools have rules about attendance and punctuality. These formal time rules provide a structure for everyday life. Families also create time rules having to do with curfew, being home for meals, or TV time. Although these may be formal, they are more often a part of a web of social expectations that are understood but not explicitly stated. Informal time norms get expressed through social expectations such as promptness, not wasting time, or the tendency to think of work before play.

Culture and time. Cross-cultural lenses can play a useful part in contrasting the values currently associated with time in our own culture. For example, while punctuality in North America means that you must arrive within minutes of the appointed hour in order to be on time, in many Latin American countries one usually has the flexibility of an hour or two before being considered late (Levine 1988). Ethnic groups within a larger culture also have different temporal norms and practices about when childbearing and rearing should begin and end, the timing of marriage, or the relative importance of work and leisure. Some countries, most notably in Europe, are much more deliberate about actively discouraging overwork. For example, France and Italy have taken the lead in legislating the thirty-five-hour work week supported by tax incentives and fines. Most European countries have twice the amount of vacation that is usually granted in the United States. (Robinson and Godbey 1997).

Controlling time. As time is perceived to be more scarce, more conflicts arise about time control, allocation, and entitlement. This happens both within families and between families and the social organizations they participate in. Within families, the control of time is manifested in a variety of ways: tag-team parents negotiate who will be home for the children after school and who will do the pick ups and drop-offs; separated and divorced parents negotiate custody schedules; and siblings negotiate TV times. Controlling time within families has been a central part of gender politics with women and men struggling to work out responsibilities for childcare, housework, and a fair entitlement to free time.

The struggle to control time between families and the organizations of which they are a part is Since Victorian times, family gatherings on holidays such as Christmas, Chanukah (pictured), birthdays, graduations, confirmations, and bar and bat mitzvahs have played an important role in marking family time as special and unique. A/P WIDE WORLD PHOTOS most apparent in the challenge that families have in trying to balance work and family. Work represents a dominant obligation for families. Work organizations take precedence with the consequence that people (especially men) in Western cultures overperform in occupations and underperform in other roles. Because people have much less control over their work lives than over their family lives, their family lives tend to adjust to their work schedules rather than the reverse. Work organizations have begun to develop family-responsive policies that shift the control balance towards more control of time for family members. Flexible scheduling or working from home, for example, allow men and women more discretion in the way that they set up their daily or weekly schedule so that they can avoid conflicts with family and household responsibilities.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesTime Use - Conceptions Of Time In Families, Major Trends In Time Use In Families