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Children ‘damaged’ by shared care, childcare author claims

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.”

He continued:

“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

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  1. Yvie says:

    Presumably this lady has no objections to young children being left all day in the care of childminders.

  2. H says:

    Every now and again, someone inside a broken system seems to gets paid to make these points, with a view to getting gullible journalists to report on them in newspapers that are not serious enough to think twice about what they publish.

    The points these individuals make have been made so often in the past that they can almost begin to look convincing. And that is the danger here.

    It would be much more intelligent, accurate and honest to say that children can be damaged in shared care arrangements, if the circumstances are not favorable, and if the parents are not doing a good job of facilitating it. But this is kind of like saying that children can be damaged in sole residency arrangements if the mother (or father) is not doing a good job. In other words, Ms. Leach is not really saying anything at all. What’s even more amusing is her claim to have ‘undisputed evidence’ for the non-point that she is making. All very typical of the way that the government and its lackeys communicate.

  3. Amanda Burrows says:

    There’s a reason why women can give birth & men can’t … It’s because they’re better at raising children! Shared care arrangements have been introduced purely & simply to pacify the father’s rights militia- there is no evidence to support the notion that children raised in a shared care environment do better than those raised by single mothers! Female single parents are fast becoming just about the most castigated group in society but most are too busy getting on with the job of providing for & raising their children to dress up as Spider-man & campaign for the recognition & respect they so rightfully deserve!

    • Nordic says:

      Amanda, in the Nordics there really are no father rights militia as we know them here, yet these countries have taken shared parenting much further. The push for shared parenting and far greater post divorce involvement of fathers in general in these jurisdictions was been driven by the various Nordic parliaments (despite these parliaments tending to have a greater share of female MPs than Westminster).

      How do you explain that?

      • Amanda Burrows says:

        I explain it on the basis of the well known principal that if you want to succeed as a woman in politics, or any other sphere traditionally dominated by men, you do so by adopting a male perspective! Better still, if you really want to get on, be even more bigoted than the men around you…works every time! Seems like it’s true for Nordics as well as other countries!

        • Luke says:

          “I explain it on the basis of the well known principal that if you want to succeed as a woman in politics, or any other sphere traditionally dominated by men, you do so by adopting a male perspective! ”
          Amanda, it is not a “well known principal” or even a “well known principle” that to succeed in politics you have to adopt a male ‘perspective’ – why would that be successful when more than 50% of the eligible voters (i.e. women) don’t have that male ‘perspective’ – and what exactly is that male ‘perspective’ anyway ?
          Better still, if you really want to get on, be even more bigoted than the men around you…
          So women and men vote for total bigots, and Theresa May and Yvette Cooper – who are favourites to be the next leaders of the Conservative party and Labour party respectively – are particularly bigoted !
          I think I am getting the hang of your female ‘oppression’ now…

    • Robert Whiston says:

      So I suppose by that logic if men gave birth you’d have no problems fighting to see your child adn would quite look forward to the protracted legal cases and the fathere taking a dog in the manger attitude over acccess visits ?

  4. H says:

    “There’s a reason why women can give birth & men can’t … It’s because they’re better at raising children!”

    No, Amanda, it’s because of biology. Those other things are learned.

    I think we ought to leave sexism and our own issues with men out of this discussion. That was Leech’s mistake too, if I’m not correct.

    P.S. I don’t know of any father rights groups, let alone militias, and if there are groups of fathers who campaign on particular issues, it’s probably because they have boys and daughters whom they care about. A very small amount of them might have other motives, as we find in all such groups, but they don’t count.

  5. Amanda Burrows says:

    H you’re absolutely right! It is down to biology & it extends beyond simply giving birth to breast feeding, brain chemistry as regards the ability to pick up on non verbal cues etc. etc. nevertheless, although throughout time & culture it has been the predominantly accepted principal that women are biologically designed to raise children, the ability of women to fulfill that biological function is only ever challenged when it comes into conflict with what men perceive to be their right of ownership! In response to your suggestion that I am a sexist, I say this- firstly my remarks have not been personal but are merely my views on a cultural phenomenon, secondly, the oppression of women has existed since time immimorial & in my view, the denial of women’s superior ability to parent children is another form of it! I do not say all women make better parents or that all men are inadequate parents – there are always exceptions to the rule but to suggest that men & women are equally well equipped to be parents is to ignore the obvious biological differences between the sexes. Lastly, I’m astounded that you’ve never heard of or been aware of the father’s rights militia! I can only suggest you trawl the internet & I promise it won’t take you long to find examples.

    • Nordic says:

      Amanda. While we can agree men and women make different parents, the notion that one gender inherently is more important or superior to the other is a sad and polarising proposition which belongs in the 1950s. It is often reported that upwards 40% of fathers lose contact with their kids after divorce in this jurisdiction. Do you really think this is a good outcome? Any child who has lived through divorce will tell you that avoiding parental conflict and maintaining strong bonds with both parents is THE most important factor impacting their ability to cope with the post divorce situation.

      Your dismissal of the Nordics is ignorant and that is putting it politely. A recent comprehensive danish study found that the number of non resident parents who lost contact permanently was around 8-9%, so less than a quarter of this jurisdiction (and in Denmark the non resident parent cannot by default be assumed to be the mother). Which family law system do you think produces the best outcome for children?

    • Stan Blues says:

      Your comment that single mums are too busy bringing up children to dress up in Spiderman costumes and protest may be true but in that single statement you show yourself as part of the problem – Families Need Fathers, etc., exist precisely because there are fathers whom these saintly hard-working single mums prevent from the exercise of their moral rights and responsibilities.

      So, congratulations on being part of the problem rather than part of the solution, Amanda.
      De-chip your shoulder, un-scale your eyes, drop the unimaginative knee-jerk language (‘militia’ = ‘feminazi’ = ‘brigade’ = yawn).
      Buy a dictionary and learn to spell.
      Buy anything by Jonathan Glover and learn to think.

  6. Stitchedup says:

    “Lastly, I’m astounded that you’ve never heard of or been aware of the father’s rights militia”

    Men’s rights groups do exist but are not anywhere near as militant as women’s groups and feminist organisations.

    what are fathers meant to do exactly Amanda? Should they just walk away from their children and sow some wild oats elsewhere in the hope they father a few replacements??

    Why should a father loose meaningful contact with his children just because his relationship with the mother has broken down??

    What makes you think men can’t pick up on non verbal cues???

    Women are not oppressed because they don’t behave like men, the majority of men fully accept that women behave differently to men. I see no reason why behaving like a woman should hinder your progress in politics, most political perspectives have little to do with gender yet we see plenty of feminist lobbying for women’s needs and concerns to be more central to government policymaking, take austerity measures as an example –

  7. Yuri joakimidis says:

    While Penelope Leach in her widely publicised book ‘Family Breakdown warns that children under 4 could be psychologically damaged by overnight stays with their father when parents live apart, mainstream social science strongly disagrees with almost all that the book argues.

    Moreover, sources are evoked without acknowledging the major criticisms that have been levelled at many of these studies and she writes as if no questions exist about the concepts they use. How does Leach side-step the lack of empirical support for her claims? The answer is clear as crystal; serenely unencumbered by the established science, she pretends, not only that there is evidence for her position and adding insult to injury, that there is no evidence to the contrary. In a nutshell, she turns the social science on its head.

    The US National Parents Organisation, asked the distinguished social science scholars professors Linda Nielsen and Richard Warshak for their responses that are reproduced below.

    Professor Linda Nielsen summary of the “Woozle effect”, the underlying research phenomenon that misleads individuals, groups and the public into thinking or believing there is evidence and non facts become urban myths and sources of received wisdom.

    “As have many other social scientists, I have written an extensive critique of the McIntosh, Smyth et al study on which Leach relies so heavily—pointing out dozens of examples of how this one study has been “woozled” (distorted and misrepresented) to mislead the public. Leach is yet one more example of how the data from that one study continue to be “woozled” to bamboozle the public into believing that social science research supports a “cautions against overnighting” policy. Since McIntosh has posted a statement on her website expressing her concern about people misrepresenting the study, surely she will contact Leach and the British journalists and publicly correct their misunderstanding of her study. ”

    Professor Richard Warshak’s enlightening summary of consensus social science and the major flaws in the Leach assertions.

    “The days are past when experts advised divorced dads to make a clean break from the family and remain, at best, visitors in their children’s lives. Growing awareness that children do best with two parents, whether parents are living together or separated, has led to a trend toward shared parenting. Yet some holdouts believe that shared parenting, appropriate for older children, is ill suited to meet the needs of young children.

    The latest is Penelope Leach. Her forthcoming book, in defiance of conclusive evidence to the contrary, contends that children under four should not stay overnight with dad after separation.

    Our society maintains a curious double standard when it comes to encouraging hands-on shared parenting. For instance, we want dads involved with their infants and toddlers — changing nappies, feeding, bathing, putting to bed, soothing in the middle of the night, cuddling in the morning. But when parents separate, some people mistakenly think that it is best for young children to spend every night in one home, usually with mom, even when this means losing the care their father has been giving them. Despite all strides in cracking gender barriers, many of us still think that it is a mother’s exclusive role to care for infants and toddlers, and that we jeopardize young children’s wellbeing if we trust fathers to do the job.

    The result is the common custody plan where infants and toddlers whose have parents separated only get to see their dads a few hours at a time, a couple of days a week. Hurriedly loading and unloading the child into the car and driving to and from dad’s home at the end of a day hardly lays a good foundation for a comforting and secure relationship with dad.

    Fortunately, science offers clear guidance on these issues. I spent two years reviewing the relevant scientific literature and vetting my analyses with an international group of experts in the fields of early child development and divorce. The results have recently been published in the American Psychological Association’s prestigious journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. The report is endorsed by 110 of the world’s leading researchers and practitioners from 15 countries. The endorsement by these scholars reflects a groundswell of concern among experts that misinformation about research evidence is impoverishing custody decisions and public policy.

    It is unfortunate that Penelope Leach’s compendium of otherwise sage advice perpetuates a myth that relies on research that has been roundly criticized by these leading international authorities on child development. Leach claims that the evidence is undisputed that children under the age of five should spend every night in their mother’s home if their parents separate. Leach cites two outlier studies to support this radical view and overlooks a pool of studies that reported generally positive or neutral findings for overnights with fathers. The Australian study Leach cites relied on a group of 14 infants for some of its conclusions and used unreliable measures. The scientists endorsing the American Psychological Association recent publication concluded that the Australian study “provides no reliable basis to support custody policy, recommendations, or decisions.” So strong was the indictment and its underlying analysis that, in the wake of its publication, the lead author of the Australian study recently admitted: “Cautions against overnight care during the first three years are not supported.” Apparently Professor Leach has not received the update.

    So how did we come to our conclusions based on the mass of evidence? Our first goal was to provide a balanced and accurate overview of settled, accepted research of the past 45 years relevant to parenting plans for children under the age of four whose parents have separated. Our second goal was to provide empirically supported guidelines for policy makers and for people who make custody decisions.

    We found no support for the idea that children under four (some say under six) need to spend nearly all their time living with only one parent, when their other parent is also loving and attentive. Warnings against infants and toddlers spending overnight time with each parent are inconsistent with what we know about the development of strong positive parent-child relationships. Babies and toddlers need parents who respond consistently, affectionately, and sensitively to their needs. They do not need, and most do not have, one parent’s full-time, round-the-clock presence.

    Many married mothers have work patterns that keep them away from their infants and toddlers at night. Like these married mothers, most single mothers do not need to worry about leaving their children in the care of their fathers. To maximize infants’ chances of having a secure lifelong bond with both parents, public policy should encourage both parents to actively participate in daytime and overnight care of their young children. After their separation, both parents should maximize the time they spend with their young children, including sharing overnight parenting time.

    How did public policy and the direction of custody decisions go so wrong? It seems related to the legacy of the “motherhood mystique,” the idea that mothers are innately better suited to care for young children. John Bowlby put forward the notion that infants form enduring ties of affection with just one person, normally the mother, before all other relationships and that this relationship both ranks higher than and serves as a template for other relationships.

    A number of studies have examined this hypothesis to see if it reflects infant experience. The research shows that children develop multiple relationships at around the same time. They form relationships with more than one care giver. These are independent of one another in the sense that the relationship with the mother is not a template for that with dad. Even John Bowlby came to recognize later in his career that infants form attachments with more than one caregiver. We cannot rank order these relationships.

    It is clear that we should encourage relationships with both parents. Doing so doubles the infant’s chances of having at least one high-quality relationship. Also, moms and dads make different contributions to their children’s development.

    The evidence continues to mount. A recent study reported long-term benefits to teenagers and young adults who, as preschoolers, spent overnights with their fathers after their parents separated. These children feel more important to their dads than do those who were deprived of overnights. They report better relationships with their dads at no cost to the quality of their relationships with their mothers. And these children showed no signs of any long-term stress-related health problems.

    Of course, shared parenting is not for all families. Regardless of their children’s ages, parents should consider a number of factors when creating the best parenting plan. What works for one child in one family may not be best for another child in another family. Our recommendations apply to most families. Some parents are negligent, abusive, or grossly deficient in their parenting, and their children would need protection from them even in intact families, But that fact should not be used to deprive the majority of children who were being raised by two loving parents from continuing to have that care after their parents separate.

    It is time to resolve our ambivalence and contradictory ideas about fathers’ and mothers’ roles in their children’s lives. If we value Dad reading Goodnight Moon to his toddler and soothing his fretful baby at 3 a.m. while the parents are living together, why withdraw our support and deprive the child of these expressions of fatherly love just because the parents no longer live together, or just because the sun has gone down?”

    Cited Papers

    Nielsen, L. (2014). Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans, and Family Court. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol. 20, No. 2, 164–180

    Warshak R A (2014) Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol. 20, No. 1, 46–67

    About the Authors

    Dr Linda Nielsen is a Professor of Adolescent and Educational Psychology at Wake Forest University North Carolina. A member of the faculty for 35 years, she is a nationally recognized expert on father-daughter relationships. Her work has been featured in a PBS documentary, on National Public Radio, and in dozens of magazines and newspapers. She has authored five books and published numerous articles in peer reviewed journals. Among her honours are: the Outstanding Article Award from the U.S. Center for Women Scholars, a postdoctoral fellowship from the American Association of University Women, and an American Bar Association award for establishing an internship program to provide legal aid to victims of domestic violence. She is a member of the American Psychological Association, National Council on Family Relationships, Council on Contemporary Families, and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.

    Dr Richard Warshak is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas Texas and a member of the Editorial Board of three professional journals. His ground breaking research, trenchant challenges to gender stereotypes and passionate advocacy for children have made him one the world’s most respected authorities on divorce, child custody, and the psychology of alienated children. As White House consultant and through his writing, speeches, legislative and courtroom testimony, videos, and workshops, Dr. Warshak has had a profound impact on the law and well-being of families where parents live apart from each other. His work has been featured in a PBS documentary and in media including the New York Times, USA Today, Macleans, the London Sunday Telegraph, the Toronto Star, and Time. Dr Warshak has written two books and published numerous articles in peer reviewed journals.

  8. davidmortimermiltonkeynes says:

    How can it be in the best interests of children for our Government & the Judiciary to ignore what has been studied & accepted to be in the best interests of children following parental separation or divorce by the experts.

  9. james dean says:

    my son loves every minute he has with me and does not want to ever go home (to his mum), he has a whole new adventure and every positive experience is good for any child. This article is so self centred, so controlling, if they had a child they would be abusing them. The only problems children get is though the controlling behaviour due to the abuse of the controlling parent and yes these problems will arise and this is where the family courts are not helping by not allowing shared redundancy which would take away that controlling behaviour from either parent, all this women has done has write about the effects of a controlling parent and then blamed it on a child having an overnight stay

  10. Yuri says:

    Enlightening comment by Professor Linda Nielsen that sheds much needed light on the smoke and mirrors in the conversation on infants and overnight stays.

    How “Woozling” Deprives Babies of Fathering Time

    By Linda Nielsen

    23 June 2014

    Have you heard that children under the age of four should live primarily, or exclusively, with their mothers after their parents separate because too much “overnighting” in their father’s care creates a host of problems—especially for infants? Have you read that babies and toddlers who frequently spend the night at their father’s house are less securely attached to their mothers and are more irritable, anxious, and stressed than those who only spend time with their nonresidential fathers during the day?

    If so, then you—along with many lawyers, judges, and policy makers—have been misled. You are unlikely to know that 110 international experts agree with the conclusion reached by psychologist Richard Warshak in his recent research paper: there is no scientific evidence that justifies limiting or postponing overnighting until children of separated parents reach the age of four.

    You’re also probably unaware that only six studies have compared overnighting to non-overnighting infants and toddlers—three of which found more positive outcomes for the overnighters, and only one of which found negative effects. That one study has received the most publicity and has also been the most highly criticized for its flaws and questionable conclusions. Unfortunately, the mistaken belief that overnighting is “bad” lives on, too often resulting in custody decisions and custody laws that deprive these very young children of overnight care from their fathers.

    So I wanted to find out how and why so many people—including well-educated professionals involved in making custody decisions and reforming custody laws—came to believe that overnighting had been “proven” to be so damaging. As I explain in a recently published article, the answer involves a process I call woozling. The term comes from the children’s story where Winnie the Pooh and his friends become obsessed with the idea that they are being stalked by a frightful beast they call a woozle. In reality, there is nothing to fear because there are no woozle “footprints”; the footprints they see are their own as they keep circling the tree. They were deceived by faulty “data.” Using Winnie’s imaginary woozle as an analogy, the sociologist Richard Gelles coined the word “woozle” to refer to a belief that takes hold in the general public but that is based on inaccurate, partial, or seriously flawed data. But because the faulty conclusion is repeated so often, most people embrace it as the truth.

    So how are woozles depriving the youngest children of overnight fathering time? In large part, the answer has to do with a single Australian study that has frequently been cited as “scientific evidence” against overnighting. The message that arose from this 2010 study was this: Babies who overnight more than three times a month and toddlers who overnight more than nine times a month are more irritable, inattentive, physically stressed, anxious, insecure, and wary than other children. They are also “severely distressed” with their mothers, and they wheeze more often due to stress. Overlooking the fact that on four of the six measures the overnighters were no different from the non-overnighters and never mentioning the study’s flaws, many journalists reported on the study under such alarming headlines as “Infants struggle in shared care” and “Shared custody a mistake for under-2’s.”
    I set out to peel back the layers of the many woozles arising from this study. For example, the “wheezing woozle” claimed that overnighting caused babies to be so stressed that they wheezed more often. But as most pediatricians and parents know, infant wheezing can be caused by many factors having nothing to do with stress, like mold, pets, cigarette smoke, and carpets in the home. Add to that another medical fact: infant wheezing is often difficult to detect even for doctors, let alone for mothers who were asked to answer only one question (“Does your child wheeze more than four nights a week?”). And even for diehards who insist that the wheezing was measured accurately and was caused by stress, the woozle ignores the fact that toddlers who frequently overnighted wheezed the least.

    Then there was the “whining woozle,” claiming that overnighting made babies more irritable and more “severely distressed”—which was interpreted to mean they were not securely attached to their moms. The reality? The overnighting babies had exactly the same mean score on irritability as babies from intact families. Then, too, the babies who frequently overnighted were no more irritable than those who never overnighted.

    As for “severe distress,” the overnighters’ scores on the behavioral problems test were well within normal range. And those behaviors that were considered signs of a toddler’s “severe distress”—kicking, biting, or getting angry at their mom, gagging on food or refusing to eat, being clingy and crying when mothers were leaving—turned out to be behaviors reported by nearly 50 percent of Australian moms of toddlers in a separate nationwide survey. In short, the severe distress and whining woozles rest on shaky ground.

    Especially in matters as important as depriving children of fathering time, we need to ask ourselves: Am I being woozled in this report about the “scientific evidence”? Fortunately, there are journalists who are not so easily bamboozled and whose investigative reporting raises public awareness about woozled data. Indeed, this has happened in Australia, where the journalist Bettina Arndt investigated the study that I had written about in my woozling paper. By revealing the woozles that the study had created, Arndt’s reporting led several organizations to reexamine their recommendations against overnighting.

    But even without the help of journalists, we have a responsibility to examine more carefully the studies that receive the most media attention. Otherwise, we can end up like Winnie the Pooh: woozled into being afraid of something that should never have aroused our fear at all.

  11. Parents until death-not divorce-do us part | Diane Bederman- The Passionate Voice of Reason says:

    […] Stowe, senior partner at Stowe Family Law is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in […]

  12. Hazel says:

    My stepson was born to single parents who never lived together. He stayed in both homes with both parents from being a few weeks old. The Mother didn’t breast feed and happily left child with the Father for weeks on end while she went on holiday. Result. Child is closer to Father who did all the care. Mother then got married and wanted child full-time and accused Father of abuse. The system is falling for her “I’m the Mother” stuff. What does that do to a child? There are selfish irresponsible Mothers out there who have no interest in children. And devoted Fathers who can do all the practical and emotional things just the same, if not better.

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