Whoops, seems like seventies styled parenting guru Penelope Leach has made a massive misjudgement over the launch of her new book for divorcing couples. Heralded by the headlines, children under five are harmed by overnight stays with their father, Leach and the Mindful Policy Group who are behind the publication of the book are very much in danger of looking out of step with modern day parenting.
The Mindful Policy Group are an interesting organisation, championed by father friendly Tim Loughton and working in the sphere of neuroscience, a discipline which tells us much about how children grow and develop healthy bonds and working interpersonal relationships. It is a shame therefore that they have so badly misread the landscape around this issue, because they do have something interesting and different to offer to this field. The story behind the headlines however is also worth exploring because this is our very own Mcintosh mashup and I have been waiting for some time for it to come to the surface in the UK.
Those of you in the know will remember that Jen Mcintosh, once champion of shared parenting, changed her stance on it when she came across the work of Allan Schore, a neurosicentist whose research demonstrates the way in which the brain develops in young children. From advocating shared parenting, Mcintosh did a turn about and began to lecture Australia on the dangers of overnights away from mothers in children under five. A perfect storm erupted and Mcintosh has recently been confronted by Richard Warshak’s review of literature which is endorsed by 110 acaemics and which supports shared parenting for children of all ages.
Penelope Leach and the Mindful Policy Group appear to me to be somewhat naive to think that they can launch the same arguments as Mcintosh into the UK debate without all hell breaking loose, especially in the same time frame as Warshak’s research has been made available and Mcintosh has come under such pressure. Nevertheless, it’s done now and war has been declared. Buckle up folks, for in the run up to the election we are once again about to witness the parental rights groups going into battle over the issue that just will not go away.
The argument is framed around whether children who stay overnights with their dad are harmed if they are under five. This however is, in my view a red herring which simply polarises the position of mothers groups and fathers groups around a difference In research outcomes. Armed with Warshak on one side and Leach on the other, the two sides are already eyeing each other up over the divide and sabre rattling is much in evidence. Whilst this is going on however, the real issue at the heart of this matter continues to be overlooked, which is that shared care, for children of all ages, can become problematic because of attachment issues and understanding how this happens, why it happens and most of all, what to do about it when it happens, is quite simply THE most powerful tool in the separated parenting toolbox.
The truth is that Schore’s research is very valuable because what it does is show us how children’s brains develop, who they are more likely to be aligned with and when and how attachment, which is the conduit through which children build their brain function, can be mediated between two parents even if they do not live together. The evidence from Schore’s research is, to me quite clear. Time away from mothers in the first three years needs to be mediated carefully between parents, giving the child all the support needed to detach and reattach to the other parent when moving between and similarly, over three it needs to continue thus with more emphasis on time spent with dad.
Schore does not say that children should not be with their father in the first three years nor does he say that overnights are harmful, that’s Mcinstosh’s interpretation and now Leach and by association the Mindful Policy Group. Schore talks about mothers a lot and is explicit that the last trimester prebirth and the first six months after are a particular focus in the building of the brain in babies, but he does not state that this means children should not stay overnight with dad, or grandparents, or anyone else for that matter. My view is that what Schore’s work actually tells us, more clearly than ever before, is what kind of support and education parents need after separation so that they can frame their care co-operatively around children’s needs.
In the midst of the arguments which have erupted on both sides we have people using emotive images of babies being forcibly removed from their mothers and buckled into cars howling and distressed and counter arguments about how kids adapt if they just get on with it. Neither of which addresses the reality which is that some children need help to manage their attachment and get over the transition bridge safely. Getting that help to children and their parents is what prevents attachment problems which in my experience lie underneath a lot of alienation reactions.
This is an important debate but it is one which I fear will just end up with two sides throwing rocks at each other, getting us nowhere and ultimately only delaying the moves towards modern day shared parenting which we know benefits children. Leach looks, in the midst of this, like an outdated grandmother lecturing a younger generation who are going to do it their own way anyway.
For me, the arguments for and against shared parenting are red herrings, the real debate is in how we get the support to parents that they need to make shared parenting work. Because the children who do experience attachment issues are often those who are in shared parenting situations. Leach wants to avoid this by simply cutting out dads and ending shared care and the single parent/women’s rights lobby are going to back that all the way. On the other side we have the 50/50 and all will be well brigade, they too will be fighting that corner as hard as they can, because too often they are blind to everything but the utopian dream of equal time which in their world means equal love. Both sides, in my view, heading off the cliff like lemmings, squabbling all the way.
Meanwhile, left behind, are the families who do share care, who would like to share care and those who struggle with children’s reactions to shared care.
That’s where our focus should be. That’s where the research tells us our focus should be.
That’s where I’ll be.