September 20, 2018


Prime Time Parenting: The Two-Hour-a-Day Secret to Raising Great Kids. By Heather Miller. Da Capo. $15.99.

     Education-firm director Heather Miller deserves tremendous credit right off the bat for her authorial approach in Prime Time Parenting. Virtually all self-help books – or, more accurately, self-improvement or self-betterment books – are primarily focused on the descriptive, on identifying a problem or issue, showing its impact on people’s lives, detailing the difficulties it causes, and explaining why it needs to be altered/improved/remedied. Only toward the end do most books enter their prescriptive phase, explaining just what readers, in the opinion of the author, need to or should do to solve the problem or ameliorate the condition that has been described at length.

     Not so Miller in Prime Time Parenting. This is a prescriptive book virtually from the start, stating quickly and directly that digital-age parenting is uniquely difficult, with stresses never seen before, and that there is a way to overcome those stresses through careful implementation of a series of plans during the crucial two hours of early evening. Then Miller goes on to say, in detail and for most of her book, exactly what parents need to do and exactly how they should do it.

     The overly certain tone of her prescription aside – some of her writing approaches the smug – Miller here offers a sensible, clear and efficient way of handling family evenings for people who accept her underlying premises and whose work schedules make it possible to make use of her recommendations. “While adhering to an explicit structure may strike some as confining and exacting,” she writes, “the reality is it liberates and lifts us.” Miller tries not to minimize the difficulties she sees of two straight hours of child focus every school day – “in practice the refusal to text, chat on the phone, or sneak in a bit of work can be surprisingly difficult” – but by and large, she sees the value of her approach as so self-evident that it needs little defense, if any.

     Prime Time Parenting is for parents of school-age children and is focused on school nights. Miller at one point mentions how much screen time parents have daily and says that she is referring to parents of kids ages 8-13, and that is a pretty good approximation of the age range of children for whom Miller’s overall prescription is intended – although at one point, later in the book, Miller states directly that her approach “is designed for children between the ages of five and twelve.” Whatever the specific age range, what matters here is Miller’s explanation that the two-hour window referred to in the book’s title needs to run from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. because kids, even middle schoolers, need to be in bed by 8:00 or 8:30 to ensure “better concentration, stronger memory, improved emotional regulation, and overall physical and mental health.” Difficult enough in the preteen years, this notion is hard to imagine for, say, teenagers or very young children.

     Miller concocts a series of straw-man questions to respond to imagined (and in some cases likely) objections to her ideas. On the bedtime matter, for example, she imagines a parent asking about a night-owl child and says that “a child who seems energetic and alert at 8:30 p.m. needs sleep just as much as a child who is visibly cranky from fatigue” and will probably fall asleep in school if not put to bed at the time Miller recommends. Thus, overtly tired or not, the child needs to go to bed in accordance with Miller’s arrangement: it is necessary to accept Miller’s approach completely, not piecemeal, in order to benefit from it.

     Parents who want to use Prime Time Parenting get a step-by-step, half-hour-by-half-hour guide here. From 6:00 to 6:30 they will check in with kids, get them started on homework, and cook dinner – yes, dinner must be home-cooked and must involve, for school nights, “five simple and nutritious meals,” with each including “at least two vegetables. Vegetables are the mainstay of healthy eating.” So there are dietary as well as behavioral prescriptions here. From 6:30 to 7:00 there will be a half-hour dinner that will be “relaxed and nutritious,” in which parents will “have rich conversations” with kids and will encourage good table manners after giving appropriate thanks for the family’s good food and good fortune. From 7:00 to 7:30 the parent sits with the child while he/she does homework, monitoring progress and supporting his/her organization while checking messages sent home from school. Also in this half hour, parents will remember to praise children for their efforts – to support and enhance their self-esteem – and help them pack their school bags for the next day. “Emphasize persistence and effort, not talent,” Miller says, and offers details on making a “homework kit” whose most intriguing component is a timer that parents should set “for the amount of time [a child] can reasonably concentrate.” Then, from 7:30 to 8:00, Miller has parents spending 30 minutes preparing children for bed, giving them a bath, reading to them and tucking them in.

     There are many, many families for which this level of precision will not work. To her credit, Miller tries, through her straw-man comments and responses to them, to take certain elements of these families’ concerns into account. If a sixth-grader gets two hours of homework a night, for example, Miller says that child needs to start work earlier in the afternoon or perhaps go to bed a little later. And if there really is a great deal of homework (as is common in gifted-and-talented programs, among other special ones, although Miller does not mention this), well, “having so much of it that it eats into a child’s sleeping hours is counterproductive” and the matter should be brought up “with your child’s teacher or principal.” For parents who find this unrealistic, well, here is where glibness and over-certainty creep into Prime Time Parenting, which does tend to be dismissive of any “excuses,” from parent or child, to the effect that “our child/family/situation is different.”

     Children do tend to thrive when there is some structure to family time, and to the extent that parents can try Miller’s approach, there is potentially a lot of good to be gained from it. Miller does herself no favors, though, by minimizing or being contemptuous of anything that might lead to more than a slight deviation from what she recommends – two parents who work entirely different schedules, for example, or have jobs that never bring them home until 7:00 p.m. or later, or children with learning difficulties or various physical challenges. It is in the certainty of her responses to any situation that does not fit her predetermined mold and allow her predetermined model to be tried as she outlines it that Miller is least helpful and most argumentative. However, for parents with children in the right age range, jobs with the right work schedules, and school systems with the right approach to homework to make Prime Time Parenting a realistic possibility, it is certainly worthwhile to give Miller’s well-meaning and carefully presented prescription a try.

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