Are her views supported by the evidence?
Discussion in the world of shared parenting reform has been dominated over the past week or so by reaction to Penelope Leach’s new book Family Breakdown: Helping children hang on to both their parents. Although only published on June 19th, some commentators had received advance review copies so that publicity could be timed to coincide with Father’s Day. Unfortunately for Leach, commentary focused on a single aspect of the book: her belief that the children of separated parents should not have overnight staying contact with their fathers before the age of 4 or 5. Leach said that the evidence was ‘undisputed’, but the ensuing furore showed it was anything but.
One of the most offensive aspects of Leach’s writing was her dismissal of overnight staying contact with fathers as a ‘sleepover’.
The press, and particularly their readers, were not kind to Leach. The Telegraph sought out the views of celebrity fathers; Louis de Bernières, author and patron of Families Need Fathers said, ‘Penelope Leach must have lost her marbles to come up with such anachronistic tosh’; novelist Tim Lot called her ideas ‘obscene’, Keith Miller found her views ‘no less offensive than telling a woman that she can’t do parallel parking’.
The Independent, which had first broken the story, and had mocked Leach in 1994 as She Who Must Be Obeyed, chose to turn the issue into a fathers’ rights one and contacted fathers’ groups. Rich Adams for New Fathers 4 Justice said, ‘Leach’s advice sounds like absolute poison and potentially terribly damaging to children’s development. Overnight staying with fathers from as early an age as possible is crucial if children are to form strong attachments with both of their parents’. Ian Maxwell of Families Need Fathers observed, ‘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’.
Not to be outdone, Nadine O’Connor of Fathers 4 Justice said in an interview with Jeremy Vine that it, ‘has to be one of the most outrageous things I’ve heard since Lucy Emmerson from the Sex Education Forum said children shouldn’t be encouraged to kiss relatives because they’re all potential child abusers’, before shooting herself in the foot by appearing to accept the primary carer ideology which is fundamental to Leach’s position; she repeated the gaff word-for-word on Radio Solent and on her blog.
Even the Guardian, normally so ready to dismiss fathers’ contribution to their children, joined in, citing Professor Charlie Lewis from Lancaster University who observed, ‘The evidence unfortunately does not support her’. Dr Tara Weeramanthri, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at the South London and Maudsley NHS foundation trust, said ‘I would not share the view that young children should not spend the night at the father’s house’, and Dr Nigel Sherriff, senior research fellow in the centre for health research at Brighton University and a member of the British Psychological Society, confirmed that Leach’s book ‘goes against the research evidence which strongly suggests that positive father engagement in the early years leads to higher social and educational outcomes’.
Rejection of Leach’s beliefs spread across the internet in an explosion of indignation. The shared parenting lobby was furious, ‘this is complete bunkum,’ said one poster on Wikivorce; another noted, ‘Far from damaging [my children], it gave them a network of adults who cared about them, gave their parents a well-needed break and meant that later on, when they went on school trips and rugby tours they were able to cope without Mum!’ Respected family therapist Karen Woodall began her response, ‘Whoops, seems like seventies styled parenting guru Penelope Leach has made a massive misjudgement over the launch of her new book’.
Even sites like Mumsnet and Netmums, which usually allow plenty of space to anti-father sentiments, were full of indignant reactions: ‘I am speechless at the narrow-mindedness of this woman,’ said one, ‘Complete and utter garbage!!!’ said another, ‘Stories like this are ridiculous,’ said a third.
Support for Leach was almost entirely absent; ‘we couldn’t agree more’, said Researching Reform blogger Natasha Phillips, using the plural to suggest she was more than a lone voice. In a later post she qualified her support.
Following her drubbing in the press, Leach claimed she had been misquoted and misrepresented, but the evidence was there on the internet for everyone to examine. In a promotional video for her book featuring an interview with former children’s minister Tim Loughton she said, ‘You get situations where children are spending a week in mum’s house and a week in dad’s house and all kinds of horrible arrangements. I call them horrible because we do know that they are desperately wrong for children’.
In a Guardian feature she protested, ‘My new book is pro fathers, not anti them. The main reason I wrote it was to help parents to work together after marriage break-up, and a big part of that is so fathers get the role they deserve and their children need’. But the article then described her belief, ‘that, in most cases, it’s best if under-fours who are living with their mothers don’t go to stay overnight with their fathers’. In a Daily Mail article Leach wrote,
Children are not chattels to be divided up like the DVD collection. Neuroscientific evidence shows that children who are under four — and especially if they are under two — almost certainly need to live full-time with their principal care-giver, who in 92 per cent of separating families is the mother.
The damage limitation continued on Amazon where a sudden rash of obsequiously flattering reviews appeared by people who had never reviewed any other book.
The consensus was that Leach had based her views on a single study and ignored the vast bulk of the evidence. There is only one study which backs what Leach had said – of which more shortly – despite Natasha Phillips’ claim that ‘there is a lot of modern research which bolsters the view that removing a child in this way is harmful to them’: repetition does not add to the evidence. But supporters of shared parenting may be surprised to know that of 31 studies which compare shared parenting arrangements with sole maternal custody, only 8 include children under the age of 6 and only 4 focus exclusively on children under 4. A detailed account of these studies is provided by Linda Nielsen, so I shall offer a very brief summary here. Nielsen’s aim is to expose and defeat what she terms a ‘woozle’, that is, a false belief propagated by promoting flawed research and ignoring contradictory studies (Nielsen, 2013e).
Three of these studies involved divorced parents; the first (Kline, Tschann, Johnston, & Wallerstein, 1989) showed that the children with frequent overnight contact were emotionally better adjusted and had better relationships with their fathers. The second study (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992) found that the frequent overnighters performed better academically, emotionally, physically, and behaviourally. The third study (Melli & Brown, 2008)found the frequent overnighters had better relationships with their fathers, were happier, less depressed, and had fewer health problems, with no differences on measures of emotional health.
In the next group of three studies the majority of parents had been married, but some had separated before the birth and some had never cohabited. In the first (Solomon & George, 1999) a majority of the children had never had a relationship with their fathers and the remainder had poor attachments and their parents were very conflicted. Only 9 of the 154 children spent more than 4 nights a month with their fathers; the only measures were the security of attachments and how well the toddlers performed in a laboratory task with their mothers. Nielsen observed, ‘this study did not find a significant link between overnighting and difficulties in emotional regulation or insecure attachments’. Despite this the study is often cited as evidence that overnighting interferes with infants’ attachments to their mothers.
In the second study (Pruett, Ebling, & G., 2004) 75% of the children overnighted at least once a week. For the 4 to 6-year olds the overnighters performed better on two measures than the non-overnighters; for the 2- and 3-year-olds no significant differences were found between the two groups. In the third study (Kaspiew, Gray, Weston, Moloney, & Qu, 2009) the frequent overnighters had marginally better performance on a range of measures.
The final two studies involve never-married parents. The first (Tornello, et al., 2013) is of no general relevance because of the demographic of the sample: deprived, uneducated African and Hispanic Americans. This study achieved brief notoriety in the UK press; the Daily Mail reported, ‘Nights away from mum “leave babies less secure”’. Edward Kruk identified that ‘The purpose of this article is to derail law reform efforts throughout the US (and beyond)’ and dismissed the study as ‘junk science’. Richard Warshak accused Tornello of a lack of objectivity (Warshak, 2014). Linda Nielson warned, ‘It would be inappropriate and ill advised to apply the data on mother-infant attachment from this study to the general population of separated parents’ and pointed out that Samantha Tornello based her case on minor differences in just one out of 14 measures of well-being (Nielsen, 2013a). The study claimed a large sample of 5,000 families, but only 51 had any overnight contact and very few of those, if any, amounted to sharing parenting.
The final study (McIntosh, Smyth, & Kelaher, 2010) has achieved greater notoriety and had greater influence than all the others; it formed part of a report commissioned by the Australian Attorney General’s office and was influential on the panel led by Sir David Norgrove in their final rejection of a presumption of shared parenting to be written into UK law. The study was designed to answer the question, ‘Should custody laws allow or should parenting plans include overnights for children this young?’ The researchers began with the presumption that disruption to a child’s primary attachment would be damaging to the child.
McIntosh was formerly a supporter of shared parenting until she came across the work of neurologist Allan Schore whose work has demonstrated that in the first three years of a child’s life, all of the behaviours and traits associated with emotional self in a relational world are triggered in the relationship with mothers, whose influence on their children is distinctly different from fathers, and in the years after three it is the father’s role which is significant, developing the other parts of the brain to do with the rational self in a material world. This is where Leach gets her ‘neuroscientific evidence’ from; logically, if we adopt her approach, we should snatch all three-year-olds from their mothers and transfer residence to their fathers.
As with her other studies in this area (McIntosh & Chisholm, 2008), criticism has focused on Jennifer McIntosh’s methodology. Her data derive from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) database which had collected data on almost 10,000 children at the time of the study. This gives studies based on this data considerable authority, and McIntosh’s conclusion sounds like the final word on the matter,
[The children] also showed severely distressed behaviors in their relationship with the primary parent (often very upset, crying or hanging onto the parent and hitting, biting or kicking) feeding related problems (gagging on food or refusing to eat) and not reacting when hurt. Such behaviors are consistent with high levels of attachment distress.
In fact, because few children fitted the study’s criteria, McIntosh’s sample sizes were very small: between 14 and 20 children. Furthermore, because only 11 infants were involved in shared parenting as it is usually defined (between 30% and 50% of a child’s time), McIntosh re-defined it to mean as little as 4 nights per month (13%) in order to boost the sample size to 48.
She also developed her own measures specifically for the study which are without validity or reliability, using the standard indicators available in the data (irritability, persistence, wheezing, and wariness) but which have never been established as valid or reliable measures of insecurity, anxiety, stress, or attachment. She then associated these behaviours to indicate negative adjustments such as insecurity and anxiety. There are other reasons why a child might exhibit these behaviours than damaged attachment – wheezing, for example, can be linked to environmental factors.
On 4 of the measures the study found no significant differences; on the others the relationships were inconsistent. Nielsen notes that ‘On overall health, the frequent overnighters were healthier than the non-overnighters’, the researchers, however, ignored any positive data and played up the negative findings, describing modest differences ‘severely distressed behaviors’.
Most of the parents had not been married (90% for the infants) and 30% had not lived together, so attachments with the non-resident parent had not been able to form and the findings have no relevance to the generality of divorced parents. The study also found no significant effects for the 4- and 5-year-old age group, which is why it limits itself to children under 4. The study did not compare the children who occasionally overnighted with those who never did, so couldn’t address the question of whether occasional overnighting is better than nothing.
While all studies have their limitations, Nielsen criticises the researchers for overlooking theirs; nevertheless, she shows that the study is not entirely without value: it has revitalised the debate and shown that legislation and parenting plans need to take children’s attachments into account. Richard Warshak went further, ‘It is somewhat surprisingly that this heavily flawed study from Australia is being raised in serious debates about family law reform’. Since publication other social scientists have recognised the study’s limitations and cautioned against using its results to influence policy or parenting plans.
Lest you think Linda Nielsen is partisan, or has deliberately omitted some unfavourable studies from her analysis, as McIntosh and Leach have done, let me quote Richard Warshak, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who after studying of 45 years’ worth of scientific literature concluded unequivocally and with the support of 110 other academics,
The evidence shows that shared parenting should be the norm for children of all ages, including sharing the overnight care for very young children (Warshak R. A., 2014).
Despite the caveats McIntosh’s study has been used by others – often those long associated with opposition to shared parenting, such as Mavis Maclean and Liz Trinder – as the basis for policy recommendations not merely for under-fives but for all children. The 28 studies comparing outcomes for children in shared parenting families with those for children in sole physical custody families are largely ignored. McIntosh did not respond to the criticisms and continued to suggest her study was based on thousands of children rather than on a sample of just 14.
Fehlberg et al (Fehlberg B. , Smyth, Maclean, & Roberts, 2011b) advised the UK government against enshrining shared parenting in legislation and repeated this in a policy paper (Fehlberg B. , Smyth, Maclean, & Roberts, 2011a), reporting only the negative findings and none of the positive ones; Liz Trinder also argued against shared parenting (Trinder, 2010). Solomon and George are often roped in to support these views despite their data not substantiating them.
As intended by its supporters, the woozle has had an impact on policy; in Australia it led to the undoing of the 2006 shared parenting reforms, in the UK it scuppered the chances of having shared parenting written into the Children and Families Act 2014 – the Norgrove panel cited only 3 of the 28 relevant studies; it is accepted by the media as the leading authority and used in the training of professionals in the family justice system, from social workers to judges; in the US and Canada it has been used for policy recommendations and for opposing legislative presumptions of shared parenting.
Penelope Leach uses precisely these same tactics by ignoring the studies which contradict her position and claiming the evidence she uses is ‘undisputed’. She also repeats the strategy of the opponents of shared parenting by claiming that the only support for shared parenting comes from the fathers’ rights lobby – which makes it easier to dismiss out of hand – and presenting it as something devised for the convenience of adults rather than for the benefit of children; indeed she presents her book as if it is the first to be written with the interests of children in mind. In 1994 the Independent had written of Leach,
She makes parenthood seem hard work; she makes us worry that there’s more we could be doing for our children; she makes us anxious and neurotic. But above all, she makes us feel guilty.
Why is the woozle, the false belief, so much more successful than the truth? The answer, perhaps, is that shared parenting is so difficult to achieve, both in the individual family and in legislation. Karen Woodall writes (Facebook conversation),
Children without healthy attachment are disadvantaged in every single way because it is a fundamental relational building block for life and we now know that without it brains are not built effectively. Healthy attachments are built between children who have relaxed parents who are capable of responding to their need signals in young years and relaxed and confident parents who are capable of setting good boundaries in later years. Unfortunately, because of the way in which family separation causes chaos in the emotional world, not many parents are those things; what they are is angry, resentful, scared, anxious, fearful and more, all of which heighten all of the hormonal and chemical reactions in adults which block attachment processes in the relationship with the child.
Woodall calls for services to support the building of healthy attachments and to enable parents to establish relationships with their children appropriate to their age and stage of development because parents can rarely achieve successful shared parenting on their own. When parents try, and fail, to do so it is so easy to condemn them and make them feel guilty, to reject the whole concept of sharing parenting and revert to the old ideology of a single, primary attachment which must not be disrupted.
Equally unhelpful to parents is the rigid insistence on 50/50 equal parenting, when we know that infants need a bit more time with mum and three-year-olds need a bit more time with dad, as Woodall says, ‘it just causes a child to be passed back and forth in a toxic soup where attachment is blocked and then the child reacts and becomes anxious-avoidant and starts to refuse to make the transition’. She argues instead for ‘family separation guides to help children cross the transition bridge and detach and attach safely and securely’, and for a ‘very basic five day mandatory training in parenting children in shared parenting situations to enable parents to understand how to use attachment mediation skills to ensure that children can move between them’. She suggests 5 nights with mum and two nights with dad up to the age of 3 and then 5 nights with dad and 2 with mum to the age of 8, and a 4 nights/3 nights pattern alternating thereafter. There would be refresher courses at the ages of 3 and 8 and it would all be paid for by government, saving millions in legal costs and dysfunctional families. The Leach approach is to prevent children venturing onto the transition bridge in the first place.
Daily Mail Reporter. (2013, July 22). Nights away from mum ‘leave babies less secure’: New findings could affect custody rulings for young children. Daily Mail.
Fehlberg, B., Smyth, B., Maclean, M., & Roberts, C. (2011a). Caring for children after parental separation: would legislation for shared parenting time help children? University of Oxford, Department of Social Policy and Intervention, Oxford.
Fehlberg, B., Smyth, B., Maclean, M., & Roberts, C. (2011b). Legislating for shared time parenting: A research review. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 25, 318–337.
Johnston, J. R., Kline, M., & Tschann, J. M. (1989). Ongoing postdivorce conflict: Effects on children of joint custody and frequent access. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 59(4), 576-592.
Kaspiew, R., Gray, M., Weston, R., Moloney, L., & Qu, L. (2009). Evaluation of the 2006 family law reforms. Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Kline, M., Tschann, J., Johnston, J., & Wallerstein, J. (1989). Children’s adjustment in joint and sole physical custody families. Developmental Psychology, 25, 430-438.
Kruk, E. (2013, July 23). Email from Edward Kruk to Kevin Gardner and Peter Tromp of the Platform for European Fathers.
Maccoby, E., & Mnookin, R. (1992). Dividing the child. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
McIntosh, J. E., Smyth, B., & Kelaher, M. (2010). Parenting arrangements post-separation: Patterns and developmental outcomes, Part II. Relationships between overnight care patterns and psycho-emotional development in infants and young children. In J. McIntosh, B. Smyth, M. Kelaher, Y. Wells, & C. Long, Post-separation parenting arrangements and developmental outcomes for infants and children: Collected Reports (pp. 85–168).
McIntosh, J., & Chisholm, R. (2008). Shared Care and Children’s Best Interests In Conflicted Separation – A Cautionary Tale from Current Research. Australian Family Lawyer, 20(1), 3-16.
Melli, M., & Brown, P. (2008). Exploring a new family form – the shared time family. 22, 231-269.
Nielsen, L. (2013a, August 05). “Overnight Custody Arrangements” Article by Tornello, Emery et al.
Nielsen, L. (2013e). Woozles: Their role in custody law reform, parenting plans, and family court. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.
Pruett, M., Ebling, R., & G., I. (2004). Critical aspects of parenting plans for young children. Family Court Review, 42, 49-59.
Solomon, J., & George, C. (1999). The effects on attachment of overnight visitation on divorced and separated families: A longitudinal follow up. In J. Solomon, & C. (. George, Attachment disorganization in atypical populations (pp. 243–264). New York: Guilford Press.
Tornello, S., Emery, R., Rowen, J., Potter, D., Ocker, B., & Xu, Y. (2013, August). Overnight Custody Arrangements, Attachment, and Adjustment Among Very Young Children. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75(4), 871-885.
Trinder, L. (2010). Shared residence: A review of recent research evidence. Child and Family Law Quarterly, 22, 475–498.
Warshak, R. A. (2014, February). Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 20(1), 46–67.