Experts agree. The adult business of divorce is disastrous for children. Though parents still brush off its impact and like to think their children emerge unscathed, the evidence is otherwise.
No one has brought this more to the public’s attention than Sir Paul Coleridge, the recently retired High Court judge in the Family Division and founder of the Marriage Foundation.
Having watched the misery inflicted on children day after day and unable to do anything to mitigate it, he believes that prevention is the only real cure. Couples, he says, simply should not contemplate children if their relationship is not strong enough.
Sir Paul is right. But this does not solve the immediate problem of the 500,000 children and adults involved in the family justice system every year. It does not help the thousands of children currently subject to the custody battles of their warring parents.
Knowing what makes a difference to children when their parents separate does help. That is why Sir Paul has so enthusiastically endorsed a new book by the baby and child guru, Penelope Leach: Family Breakdown – helping children hang onto both parents
In his foreword, he writes that it ” should be obligatory reading for anyone even contemplating the ending of a relationship where children are involved.” Parents must be made aware of the pitfalls of splitting a family. The effects on children are profound and permanent – children’s lives are turned upside down and inside out. It is deeply disruptive, usually sad and sometimes tragic.”
It is perhaps no wonder today that debate about what constitutes the best custody arrangements for children of fractured families has run on battle lines between feminists and, fathers’ right groups.
New research, setting out a new evidence base for what is best for children of fractured families is discussed by Leslie Loftis here. In essence, she says, the modern view is that children need open access to both parents and that this is what children say they want. ‘Trading weekends’ or any other proscribed and routinized arrangement is insensitive to their needs and found by children to be inadequate.
But there are still dangers in relying on such apparently reasonable research conclusions. They can still be used by parents in their own interests and used to draw new battle lines. However enlightened the presumption of shared parenting seems, as opposed to what Leslie describes as the current unstated presumption of primary maternal custody, this may not suit all babies and children at every stage of their development.
This trap is one that Penelope’s manual and guide for helping children hang onto both parents avoids. She does not start with ‘presumptions’ but from the perspective of the baby’s and child’s developmental needs. Her focus is less on parental rights than on parental responsibility to understand these needs.
She begins by explaining why and how “children’s ages and stages have a powerful effect on how they perceive and are affected by parents separating and what they need from them both.”
It may not be rocket science but it needs saying – a baby is quite different from a 10-year-old. What two-month-old baby needs open access to dad? What two-month-old does not need a close and secure attachment to his primary carer, usually the mother, who may still be feeding him – and on demand?
It is sad sign of the times that Penelope’s call for sensitivity to children’s developmental needs was wrongly interpreted as an attack on fathers. It is a sad reflection of the extent to which custody battles still revolve defensively around respecting parents’ rights.
But what these critics missed about Penelope’s guidance is that it transcends the war between the sexes. Its focus is on the child. Her understanding of the a priori need for maternal attachment is neither feminist nor anti-feminist, neither anti or pro men’s rights.
That, I suspect, makes it uncomfortable reading for some.
She demands her reader work through and think about the impact of divorce on every stage of the child’s development; on the role of and the relationship with every other member of the family from siblings and grandparents to parents, lovers and step-parents.
She painstakingly focuses the parent on every practical impact on his or her child – from geography, safety, school, money matters and legal issues. Only then does she set out how parents can separate for better or for worse, and explains the importance of mutual parenting – something quite different from shared parenting.
She is uncompromising that the best possible gift divorcing parents can give their child is a mutual commitment to making their child’s well being their first consideration.
If Penelope Leach has been cast as the scourge of parents it is because she is a necessary one. Since her seminal Your Baby and Child (1977) she has, detached from the feminist wars raging around her, been society’s most steadfast defender and exponent of babies’ and children’s needs – and the essential conduit of them to their anxious and inexperienced parents.
Family Breakdown follows exactly in this tradition. That is exactly why it is so needed.