If I spend ten minutes a week with my kids, that's a big advance on the traditional, middle-class nil minutes

A new British survey has suggested that, during the working week, professional men spend an average of ten minutes with their children. That's per week, not per day. This really doesn't give you time to get much done. You could take the children to school once, so long as you didn't see them again. You could use the time to read The Lord of the Rings aloud, although, according to my calculations, this would use up all your weekday child-time for five years.

But wasn't it Flaubert who wondered if, rather than being widely read in a superficial way, it might not be better if we could know three or four books really well? Perhaps ten minutes a week would be enough time to spend with the children, if it were used properly.

You could be like one of those holy men whom people come thousands of miles to see and you just utter a sentence such as "Consider the sound of the tree falling in the deserted forest", and they have to take it away and make sense of it. That may be all right for the yogi sitting cross-legged in the foothills of the Himalayas, but it may be less practical in the context of family life.

Of those crucial ten minutes, in a typical week, five minutes will be spent changing socks until you get a pair that doesn't "itch my feet"; two minutes will be spent shouting; and another three minutes will be lost while brushing the teeth of a toddler against its will.

Have you tried this? It involves a technique that is known only to parents of young children and to the Chilean secret police. You place the child on your left knee, trap its right arm between your left elbow and your body while securing its left wrist with your left hand. You then jam the toothbrush through its clenched teeth like a cattle prod and scrub through the howls and choking. It doesn't count as quality time.

I don't know how these surveys work. What counts as time spent with your children? Do you have to be talking to them face to face for all the time, playing with them in a string quar- tet, baking a cake together, collaborating with them on a sculpture? Or does it count if you are watching television together (in contrast, perhaps, to watching TV in your room, while they watch TV in their room)?

Are you spending time with your children if you are in the same room while they are talking on the phone? Is being with your children a presence, like a fire crackling away in the hearth, warming them gently even if they aren't thinking about it - or you?

Is having your father around like having a totem pole standing out in the garden? Or does he need to be with you all the time, doing those things that fathers are meant to do with their sons, such as talking about football or replacing carburettors?

For many middle-class fathers, ten minutes is a huge, onerous increase on previous generations for whom the average time was no minutes a week. An educational ideology was constructed on the notion that contact with their parents ruins boys and prevents them from going out and administering the empire.

There's even that terrible Cecil Day-Lewis poem, always quoted by the headmasters of boarding schools, which says, and I'm paraphrasing, that real love consists of sending your children away from home at a very young age and never seeing them again until they are grown up and have virtually forgotten who you are.

The last office job I had was in 1987, which means that I've served more time at home than the average person convicted of murder spends in prison. No wonder I find it difficult to cope with the outside world.

I've spent quantity time with my children. God, have I spent quantity time with them. I could imagine them hearing about the ten-minute survey and coming to me in a deputation: "You could have a go at that. And you wouldn't even have to do the full ten minutes. Not every week. You could deduct it from the surplus you've built up. And, in fact, this bit now, just while we've been talking, that counts as two or three minutes easily - four, in fact, by the time we've finished talking.

"That's plenty for this week. Go away. Now."

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky