A friend of mine works 16-hour days launching his business. To make (time) ends meet, he hasn't exercised in months. He gets by on little sleep.

"But at least I'm around my kids in the evenings," he says. "I may still be working, but we're all in the same room. So that's going well."

Well intentioned, maybe, but according to research, not going well.

According to a classic study by Wharton and Drexel professors Stewart Friedman and Jeff Greenhaus, respectively, the number of hours busy professionals spend with their kids each day was not the best predictor of their children's physical and emotional health. 

Instead, a better predictor was whether the parents were distracted when with their kids.

According to Friedman:

If you're thinking about work when you're with your child, the child knows it and it affects him or her.

Time and attention are not the same thing; there's a big difference between physical presence and psychological presence. You can be spending time with people, but if you're not psychologically present, you're not doing anybody any good.

In short, time is good.

But focused, undistracted quality time is better.

The study focused on what Friedman calls "the inner experience of work":

  • A parent's perceived values regarding the importance of career and family 
  • The psychological interference of work on family life; Friedman defines this as thinking about work when you're physically with your family
  • The apparent control over time spent working

Those factors, rather than the quantity of time spent together, correlated with the degree children displayed behavioral problems, something Friedman feels are key indicators of mental health.

After all, kids are less likely to act out when they're relatively happy and feel good about themselves.

And How You Feel About Work

Still, undistracted time is just one piece of the puzzle. How you feel about your work also matters.

According to Friedman, "To the extent that a father (and, assumedly, a mother) was performing well in and feeling satisfied with his job, his children were likely to demonstrate relatively few behavior problems, again, independent of how long he was working."

As long as when you're engaged with your kids, you're truly engaged. If you love your work but are distracted, then you lose the impact on your kids of your passion for your profession. 

"A father's psychological availability, or presence, which is noticeably absent when he is on his digital device," Friedman writes, "was also linked with children having emotional and behavioral problems."

In simple terms, 30 undistracted minutes are better than 60 "let me just check a few emails" minutes. 

One Way to Make a Difference: Actively Schedule Family Time

If it feels like your day is scheduled to within an inch of its life, adding another item may be the last thing you want to do.

But it could be the best thing, especially for your kids. Block out family time the same way you block out work time.

Have dinner as a family. Help your kids with their homework. Watch a movie. Get outside. Do something. Do anything.

Just do it together, undistracted.

It won't be as hard as you think. Every family has peak times when they can best interact. If you don't proactively free up that time, you'll slip back into work stuff.

Working when you're home is OK. Telling your kids, "I need 15 minutes to send a few emails, and then we'll go outside and play," is OK.

As long as you put everything else aside after those 15 minutes and just play.

As Friedman writes, "We were surprised to see in our study that parents' time spent working and on child care -- variables often much harder to do anything about, in light of economic and industry conditions -- did not influence children's mental health.

"So, if we care about how our careers are affecting our children's mental health," he continues, "we can and should focus on the value we place on our careers and experiment with creative ways to be available, physically and psychologically, to our children, though not necessarily in more hours with them."

Because you may not be able to control how much time you spend with your kids.

But you can control how you spend it.