A childcare author has claimed that shared parental care damages the development of children.
Penelope Leach is a psychologist, a former president of the National Childminding Association and the author of a number of books on child rearing and childcare. In her latest, entitled Family Breakdown, she claims that shared care arrangements following divorce or separation harm young children.
The author, now 76, said:
“It can be damaging to the child to divide time equally between the parents.”
Moving children under five between different homes and letting them spend the night with a non-resident parent creates “unhealthy attachment issues”, she declared, and there was “undisputed evidence” that spending time away from the parent the child normally lives with has an adverse effect on brain development.
Ms Leach added:
“When people say that it’s ‘only fair’ for a father and mother to share their five-year-old daughter on alternate weeks, they mean it is fair to the adults – who see her as a possession and her presence as their right – not that it is fair to the child.”
The comments have not proved popular with father’s rights groups.
Ian Maxwell, a spokesman for parenting pressure group Families Need Fathers, criticised her comments, telling the Independent on Sunday:
“The bond between fathers and children is just as important and we would question the evidence Ms Leach is citing for the primacy of the maternal bond.”
“The idea [of] maternal bonds being the strongest goes back to classic attachment theory, and I think we’ve moved on quite considerably since then – and also the involvement of fathers in their children’s lives has also developed quite considerably.”
But Ms Leach defended her position, the paper reports, saying “being a father is not a reward for good behaviour”.
She criticised the idea that “equal parenting ought to be equal numbers of days and nights with each parent, without regard with what is best for the individual child. It can be damaging to the child to divide time equally between the parents.”
I have to say that my own sympathies lie with Mr Maxwell here. Society is now very different to how it was 50 years ago. There is more divorce and there are more single parents. There are many families with siblings, step siblings, children who are not related, all living together with two, three or even four parents. Where is the hard evidence that children are all being harmed by these changes, if they are brought up by adults who understand what the children need and do their best to give it to them?
Non-resident parents – who are, let’s be honest here, mostly fathers – sometimes struggle to build a meaningful relationship with their children, simply because they do not see them on a day-to-day basis. A few hours every other weekend simply isn’t the same as participating in the day-to-day routine of a child’s life. This difficulty is especially acute when the children are too young to understand why their father no longer lives at home.
Shared care arrangements are one way to address this difficulty and whilst I agree that a shared care arrangement happening too suddenly may not be the answer, a gradual adjustment should work well, with good will on all sides and a firm focus on the needs of the child.
Regularly staying overnight at Dad’s house brings a degree of normality to the relationship. Dad becomes a caring figure in the child’s life rather than just an occasional visitor and in the process his home becomes the child’s home too. It can even be fun!
Children will take time to become accustomed to different surroundings, but with a parent to guide them, such arrangements arguably help to socialise them and encourage them to adapt to the changes they will inevitably face, more than most, as they grow up.
As a society, we are now much readier than we once were to acknowledge the importance of the father figure. Single fathers are no longer objects of pity and the traditional assumption that children are the automatic possession of their mothers is questioned with greater frequency. There is solid evidence for the many benefits fathers bring to their children’s lives beyond the merely financial.
Penelope Leach is undeniably a well-established expert, but family life and society have changed a great deal since the 1960s, when she herself was a young mother.
Photo by lilspikey via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence