Let’s sleep on it

Now, this is a bit of a cop out. There’s been quite a “thing” going on about Penelope Leach and her views about dads, overnight contact and all – and it’s got quite heated.

I’ve been aware of it this week, and have been catching myself up this evening. I’ve got to the point where I think I ought to post about it, but have not really been able to digest it all sufficiently to make the sort of carefully crafted blog post that would be necessary in order to avoid a general tongue-lashing from every interest group, aggrieved parent and busy body on the planet. Because this is a real hot potato, and I’ve been called all sorts of unmentionable things when I’ve touched it before. It’s the sort of topic about which people appear unable to have a civilised debate.

So, chaps*. Let me say this. This is not “comment”. It’s a bunch of links with some thoughts tagged onto the bottom. I’ll do comment later. When I have time to do it properly. Anyone who fights, swears or bitches on the comments is off. Anyone who regurgitates the same old point again and again is off. I’m not feeling very patient.

So, in no particular order :

Guardian articles : Childcare guru: small children should not stay overnight with absent parent – Penelope Leach heavily criticised over claim children may suffer emotional damage if they sleep over at absent parent’s home

Penelope Leach denies her new childcare book is an attack on fathers – The childcare guru of the 1970s, who says overnight stays with absent parents damage small children, insists she is pro-fathers

Researching Reform :
Penelope Leach Says Under Fives Should Not Have Sleepovers With Separated Fathers – And We Agree

‘That’ Statement on Overnight Contact And Where We Stand

Only Dads : Penelope Leach and Sleepovers

New Statesman : Why we need a single mothers’ pressure group

Other stuff:

Penelope Leach’s website

British Psychological Society

A Short Treatise on Woozles and Woozling

I’m sure there are other things I’ve not linked to here, but these are the ones I’ve successfully bookmarked.

My preliminary view is that a lot of this hoo hah is probably borne of a mismatch between headlines and the substance of the book, of a determined desire to demonstrate that some of the research that has been used to block “shared parenting” is wrong, and of a tendency to confuse or elide “shared care” with “50:50” and with “overnight contact”. I too read the initial headlines about no overnights with horror, but I’m not sure in truth that is quite what she’s saying. I’m not prepared to assume that a whole book has been accurately boiled down in a single line headline. So I’m reserving my judgment.

I’ll say a couple of things, to head off the inevitable “do you have kids?” challenge to my parenting credentials: I do. My kids are 4 and 6. In our household the traditional roles are reversed. I would not expect either of us to deny the other overnight contact after separation given that each of us is actively involved in care. Our kids are edging out of the age bracket Leach is concerned with though, but I remember no so long ago the struggles to get them to stay overnight with grandma and granddad for a rare night out – and the emotional turmoil that involved (for the eldest in particular). Their cousins however (similar ages) have been regularly staying at grandma and granddads without difficulty, no doubt not unrelated to the fact that this has long been part of their routine since separation of their parents. However, I was surprised at how much resistance our two gave to staying overnight with grandma when we tried to introduce it. It was surprisingly difficult to establish even though we were both committed to making it happen. Whether the difference in reaction between the cousins was more to do with routine / familiarity or because they were different children I don’t know. Probably a bit of both, I suspect. As a parent rather than a lawyer though, I’m struck by how some children manage change rather better than others. But of course for some children change is made inevitable by the separation of their parents, and so staying overnight with both of them from time to time is the closest they can get to normal.

I’ll go this far : IF Penelope Leach is saying there should never be overnights for under fives to the “other” parent she is wrong. Just as wrong in fact as anyone saying that all children should always spend 7 of 14 nights with each parent. That much I’m prepared to say in reliance on my credentials as a parent. That much does not require a psychology degree or an extensive survey of the research. If it’s a cop out to say it’s complicated and that the answer may be different for different children – well, then I’m copping out.


*in which I include chapesses.

22 thoughts on “Let’s sleep on it

  1. In the spirit of not making any comment; these 3 excerpts I found interesting:

    ‘Our activities are widely respected because we don’t make wild claims. Not so, it seems former parenting guru, Penelope Leach, who came out yesterday with the quite absurd idea that no child under four can spend even one night away from their mother without the possibility that this will ‘cause lasting damage’.

    Ms Leach’s evidence? A single study from Australia (McIntosh et al, 2010). The problem for Ms Leach, however is that that the findings and methodology of the Australian (‘McIntosh’) study have been discredited (read more in our blog from March 2014); and other studies from around the world have shown no ill-effects among very young children in separated families who stay overnight with ‘the other parent’ (Warshak, 2014; Nielsen, 2014; Cashmore & Parkinson, 2012).

    Possibly even more problematic for Ms Leach, is that McIntosh herself has backed off from this position (in fact, she now says she never held it) and is currently urging experts to ‘resist the urge to prescribe fixed formulas about numbers of overnights or age of commencement’ (McIntosh, Pruett & Kelly, 2014).’


    ‘Leach’s influence is even more worrying because science shows her “undisputed evidence” to be wrong. She relies on a single study from Australia (McIntosh et al, 2010). Responding to this study, the American Psychological Association (APA) has published a paper, Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report, endorsed by 110 of the world’s leading child mental health experts from 15 countries, repudiating its conclusions.

    The lead author of the Australian study has subsequently dropped the conclusions that Leach relies upon, stating: “Cautions against overnight care during the first three years are not supported.” Sadly for so many children and their parents, Leach does not include this addendum in her book.’


    This was provided by a chap in Oz:

    ‘Jennifer Mcintosh was the lead researcher in this particular study funded by the Australian government attorney generals department and is almost the basis on which access of children in this age group is handed down in Australia.

    What I find so horrendous about this study is that in the study itself only 63 children under 24 months old, of separated parents who shared custody one night or more per month , were being compared to 235 children of separated parents who did not see the other parent.

    In addition to it being a very small sample, all from lower socio-economic backgrounds, it was the mother in every case doing the reporting of well being indicators.

    That is, the reported well being by around 63 mothers is the basis for not only these black and white headlines, but has all but set the standard for court orders in Australia, & probably more countries who are influenced by this.

    Further, it would appear that not 1 non-custodial parent or separated father was included in this study.’

  2. P.S. I don’t know anyone or have read anywhere, where it is said that ‘all’ children should be in a 50/50 schedule. What is said; the ‘starting’ point for ‘consideration’ after separation should be equal parenting care if the circumstances allow e.g. family history, geography, working arrangements etc

    Of course most separated families will not be anywhere near sharing the care equally but it should be the starting point when those authorities involved with a separated family are considering matters, is what is ‘actually’ said.

    Penelope Leach may have been misquoted but she has had ample opportunity to correct this with her appearances on tv, radio and newspaper columns. So far nothing as far as I have seen to say she was misquoted with those ridiculous non-evidence based views. Here’s hoping.

    • robert whiston

      Dr. Linda Nielsen has responded to Penelope Leach’s recent claims about the social science of overnight visits (sleepovers) and the damage it poses for very young children in this way:

      “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. ”

      To read more about this renegade view and the ‘leading lights’ of the social science results for child development and divorce (from the American Psychological Association and the Journal of Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, open the following URLs:
      1/. http://sharedparenting.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/45/ “Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report”
      2/. http://sharedparenting.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/39/ “The role of ‘woozles’ in custody law”
      3/. http://sharedparenting.wordpress.com/2014/06/11/47/ “Parenting Plans for Infants, Toddlers, and Pre-schoolers: Research and Issues.”

  3. robert whiston

    Hurrah. You at least ‘get it’.
    (research that has been used to block “shared parenting” is wrong, and of a tendency to confuse or elide “shared care” with “50:50” and with “overnight contact”).
    Thanks for that clarity of vision and for avoiding the stupid Lord Falconer stumble (2004) when he tried to compare SP with dividing up one’ s CD collection.

  4. Amber Hartman, Justice For Families, Parents Against INjustice and Educational Freedom

    It is her opinion. Jo Frost may have a different one.

    Opinions are perceptions which is why I find family courts can be dangerous in making the wrong decision. In my own case sw, Mairead Morgan, did not investigate prior proceedings and ‘made it personal’ (said by my solicitor). Despite cafcass and myself pleading for a different sw the judge refused. However, after Mairead probed and discussed something to potential kin care relating to which the Judge ordered was not relevant I refused to deal with her and thankfully got a wonderful and fair social worker, Julie Maher, who said she would have handled the case differently and it would never have reached proceedings.
    Mairead, childless, made allegations about childhood behaviour being emotional abuse, Julie, a mother, understood the ‘little strops’ were normal childhood behaviour.

    My point here is that it is all perception. In family courts it is essential expert witnesses are fair. I have a list of who I believe are fair which I have collated. No Cleo Van Rooyen, Hibberts on it…

    My own opinion on the article it that I hope it disreputes Leach as I believe shared parenting is better, unless there is an element of safety- but that refers to both parents.

    Her article then means that gay male couples should not be able to adopt under 5’s? That a widowed father with under 5’s should not have them?

    I really hope no one takes her ludicrous comments seriously.

  5. Linda Nielsen has provided a very useful summary of all the available research into overnight staying and young children. There is less of it than one might expect, just 8 relevant studies, and 7 of them show a lack of harmful effects rather than positive benefits. The 8th – which is McIntosh’s notorious study – argues for a harmful effect, but Nielsen is very critical of the methodology. I suspect supporters of shared parenting – of whom I am one – would like there to be more evidence to support their views, but there isn’t, largely because most researchers set out with the presumption that disrupting the principal attachment will be damaging and the studies merely prove that it isn’t – they cannot prove what they do not set out to prove. Nielsen is well worth reading to get some perspective on this; her (quite long) piece is available here: http://sharedparenting.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/39/
    I intend to blog on this matter, too. What I find objectionable about Leach, other than her description of fathers’ relationships with their children as ‘sleepovers’ – is her implication that hers is the first book to look at this matter from the perspective of the child, and her criticism of separating parents for failing to consider their children in their decisions. Separated parents who read this book (we have a review copy) will be made to feel guilty and that they have let down their children. I think that says more about Leach and how she views her own parents than anything useful for other parents; perhaps she needs to exorcise her own demons before telling others how to raise their children.

  6. La Leach is not prejudiced against fathers and does not want to exclude them from children’s lives.

    And the moon is made of green cheese.

    And the lion shall lie down with the unicorn and Shergar shall lead them.

    And Princess Di is on tour with Elvis – who shot JFK from the grassy knoll before NASA did not send him to the Moon.

  7. I’m not sure if you’re a separated parent, Lucy: Penelope Leach is talking about children whose parents have separated. If you’re not, then the personal experience that you have and refer to above is of children who have one settled home and whose parents live together.

    Penelope Leach is not saying that no child should sleep away from home under the age of 5. Plenty spend time with grandparents, though little ones can struggle even with that, sometimes. Whilst I understand that the research PL is referencing may be less unequivocal than she suggests, I think it’s worth taking a step back and considering both whether she may have a point and also from what focus the objections to her opinion come from. It’s sometimes easier to criticise an idea than to defend it.

    Psychological / child care topics are all difficult because we all have our own personal experiences that apparently top research or the opinions of those who have experience of many different children in many different circumstances. Often the results of research are counter – intuitive, too. It seems to me that separated parents have a lot of difficulties to deal with and many conflicting emotions about the child and the other parent that make it difficult to see things from the child’s point of view. For example, once it’s pointed out that children of even quite grown up ages will blame themselves for their parents’ separation, it seems obvious, even though it wasn’t obvious until the research was done.

    What Penelope Leach is talking about, as you point out, is young children spending nights away from the primary carer.

    There was reference over the weekend to how shared parenting works so well. What strikes me in these discussions is the talk of the primary carer’s home and the absent parent’s home with no reference to where the child’s home is supposed to be. Certainly down the years I have heard guardians say that a child needs to know where its own home is and he or she needs to have his or her own bedroom: one, not two. The studies of children’s views that I’ve read to quote children being unhappy and being shared between parents. I did once come across an arrangement where the child had a home and the parents alternated moving in to care for the child. I’m sure it was inconvenient but nothing to what children experience when they have to undergo a similiar exercise. Why should it be the child who has to do the packing up and moving?

    For all the children who say they like having 2 Christmases and 2 sets of presents, there are as many who get tired of being parcelled up and sent on their way on Christmas afternoon or Boxing Day to do the same thing all over again with the other family. Or having all the alternate Christmases decided from here to majority.

    I know it’s not easy.

    • I am not a separated parent Norma and I appreciate my childrens’ experience is less fractured and disrupted than many children of separated parents. My (limited) point was that my “undisrupted” children with two active parents found it a struggle to stay overnight with their (very familiar) grandparents, even though they looked after them for a day a week from babyhood.

      As I said I’m not sure Leach is actually saying never overnights to all under 5s. Equally I would not say always overnights for all under 5s. To get technical : I think you just have to suck it and see.

      • robert whiston

        The Belgians are light years ahead of us – and so too are the French. They have no hang-ups about 2 residences, Dads and Mums. They have gone one stage further than shared parenting, and have “alternating residence.”
        Belgian Mde Sabine Baudoux is a child psychology expert, a family therapist, and is responsible for expertise in all of Belgium’s courts. Of the types of ‘living arrangements’ (custody) she favours “shared hosting”. She believes ‘co-parenting’ represents an essential element for children aged 0 to 3 years. I’ve made a translation into English of her address at :: http://sharedparenting.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/46/

        How do we think separating coupples managed in the past, i.e. before the 1989 Act ? Joint custody (roughly equal to share parenting) was a custody awarded in over 30% of cases in the Midlands, London and south east. Only in the north, Teeside, Newcastle etc, was it at less than 10% (see summary of a 1987 Law Commission paper at https://robertwhiston.wordpress.com/tag/20-wasted-years/). But the 1989 Act which was supposed to support the new ‘shared residence’ concept actually killed off joint custody and now we are down to about 5% nationally – but no one really knows.

        I tried to get both the House of Commons and Lords interested in receiving a delegation of experts from Belgium before the Children and Families Act 2014 was passed to explain how it worked, but no one was interested. Perhaps the Bar Council or the Law Society, or chambers might be ?

  8. Julie Doughty

    Given that Penelope Leach’s book is called ‘Family Breakdown: helping children to hang on to both their parents’, might it be an idea to read it before going along with the Daily Telegraph et al?

    I noticed a Times headline today that ‘top family judge’ is making divorce available over the counter. Funny that, I thought it might require an Act of Parliament.

    Lucy has noted in another thread that newpapers have to sell copies. However, a few minutes looking behind the headlines might keep down some people’s blood pressure.

    • robert whiston

      And a few minutes reading Nielsen’s and Warshak’s papers (a distilled opinion of 110 of the world’s leading experts) would not go amiss either – and it might explain why so many are getting heated over this rather passe research which better belongs to the 1970s.

  9. The press criticisms of the book are entirely justified, Julie; the stuff about overnight stays is in chapter 7, and McIntosh is quoted on page 120, along with a misrepresentation of the Solomon and George study.

    There are many other criticisms one could make, but perhaps it is enough to say that it is just a very strange book; as the Independent said of Leach in 1994, her aim seems to be to make the reader feel guilty, and a poor and inadequate parent. It is hard to know who it is aimed at, but my guess is she is addressing her own parents. The book meanders about and much of the material is repeated. It might interest Lucy to know that her grasp of the law is very inaccurate and she is completely unaware of the Children and Families Act 2014, and of the effects of LASPO – it is as if the book were written some years ago, and has been sitting around. It also smells unpleasant, but perhaps that is the ink used.

  10. Regarding children’s reluctance to be left overnight with grandparents or any other scenario.
    Many years ago our mother used the ‘goodbye and go’ approach with me and my sisters – I have vague memories of it with my youngest sister. What we learned from this was to use this approach in our own parenting in all sorts of different scenarios – from kindy, to grandparents, to school.
    ie ‘love you lots, see you later kiss from Dad, goodbye’ – GONE.

    So Lucy regarding ‘I remember not so long ago the struggles to get them to stay overnight with grandma and granddad for a rare night out’
    Maybe some of that reluctance was in the ‘goodbye’.

    Not a criticism – just an observation.

    My point is many embittered parents who do not want their children to move between both parents lives will fuel that natural reluctance and use it as an excuse to try to prevent the shared care.

    • Thank you Ken, no neither of us is a fan of prolonged goodbyes and neither generally have any trouble separating for school or nursery. Of course, unlike separated parents whose children might pick up on parental reluctance to leave them or negative views about who they are being left with this was a scenario of parents positively WANTING the children to go, encouraging it and positively preparing them for it. In fact they were fine ultimately after two or three goes, but were quite insistent they did not want a sleepover in the days running up. I can imagine that the same thing may happen for some other children, and in the context of an anxious or reticent resident parent the protests would I expect be quite influential. It is hard to do the bye and run in our circumstances, but no doubt harder for a bruised and anxious parent to do so when they are worried about how their child is coping with change. Sure some do use it as an excuse, but I think also some just find it hard to see the bigger picture and to take the leap of faith that is required in peeling a weeping child off you and walking away – particularly if you are leaving them with a person who you have lost trust in as a partner.

      • ‘particularly if you are leaving them with a person who you have lost trust in as a partner.’

        That’s an excuse too!

        Sadly in NZ just as in the UK it’s used to justify the stance way too often.

        • It can be an excuse. It can also be a genuinely felt emotion that parents need to get beyond. Most of them do so over time.

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