The other day I read with interest the results of a new study into the involvement of fathers in early child-rearing, and its effect upon the behaviour of children. The study, by a team at the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit in the Nuffield Department of Population Health, concluded:
“Psychological and emotional aspects of paternal involvement in children’s early upbringing, particularly how new fathers see themselves as parents and adjust to the role, rather than the quantity of direct involvement in childcare, is associated with positive behavioural outcomes in children.”
In other words, the attitudes of fathers towards fatherhood was of more significance to positive behaviour in children than the amount of their direct involvement in the childcare.
Now, the study was not concerned with families where the parents had separated, and it was just about children’s behaviour not their welfare generally, but it did bring to mind the old piece of advice for parents seeking contact with their children: it’s not about the amount of contact you have with your children, it’s about the quality of it. To put it another way, so long as you have a reasonable amount of time with your children, concentrate your energies on making that time as beneficial for the children as possible, not upon increasing it simply to achieve parity with the other parent.
As I’ve indicated, this piece of advice is nothing new. However, it may be new to those who have recently become a separated parent, and even for those who haven’t, it bears repeating.
As a family lawyer I have seen first-hand protracted disputes between parents over arrangements for their children, in which the ‘non-custodial’ parent (i.e. the parent with whom the children presently spend less of their time) is desperately seeking full equality of time with their children. I have also seen many reports of such cases. Sometimes the non-custodial parent may be doing this because they genuinely believe that equal shared care is the best thing for their children (and they may be right), while other they are doing it simply to ‘get back’ at the other parent. And sometimes they may be doing it for ideological reasons – i.e. they simply believe that it must be best for all children.
Whatever their motivation, such disputes can be extremely damaging for all concerned, especially the children, and often that damage may outweigh any benefit that the children may get from spending more time with the non-custodial parent. Arguing over what can in the end be just a small difference in the amount of time the children spend with each parent can be not only pointless but also time-consuming, stressful and expensive. It can also of course destroy what may be left of the relationship between the parents, to the severe detriment of the children.
Think about it. Whether we like it or not, we still live in a society where one parent, usually the father, is the sole or primary breadwinner. This inevitably means that the children will spend more of their time with the other parent. In other words, ‘unequal parenting’ is the norm, and doesn’t automatically mean that the child suffers harm. My own childhood may have been from a different time, but it was certainly my experience that I spent the vast majority of it in the company of my mother rather than my father, and I didn’t suffer from it. In fact, for a time my father worked nights and I hardly saw him for weeks on end. That may not have been ideal, but it must still be the reality for many children who have a parent that does shift work. Unequal parenting is normal.
And then one comes across and hears many stories of cases in which the care of the children is shared equally, only for the children to actually spend their time with the non-custodial parent’s new partner as the actual non-custodial parent is out at work for much of the time. Obviously, it is pointless to seek more contact just to end up in that situation.
There is also an argument that having less time with your child may make it easier to make that time ‘special’. The classic example of this is the father using his contact time to take his son to a football match. Such time can do wonders to improve the bond between the child and the parent.
Now, I’m a family lawyer, not an expert on child welfare and upbringing (although my experience obviously does give me some expertise in that area). I understand there can be no absolute rules as all children and their needs are different. However, my experience does, I think, make me an expert on the damage that protracted disputes over arrangements for children can cause to families – and especially, of course, the children. All I am saying, therefore, is that any non-custodial parent seeking contact, or more contact, with their children should think carefully about just how much contact will be of the greatest benefit to their children, before embarking upon a battle with the other parent for more time, a conflict in which the children will inevitably be the first casualties.
You can read more about the study here.
Image by nathanmac87 via Flickr