As thousands of divorced and separated parents decide where their children will spend this Christmas, an ESRC-funded study into post divorce family life shows that fairness and equality between fathers and mothers may end up being unfair on the youngsters.
The Fathers 4 Justice movement, whose 'Xmas Demo' takes place on Saturday (December 18), is among those calling for family law to adopt a principle of pure equality between parents. Its members, with support from Bob Geldof, and organisations such as the Equal Parenting Council, demand that on divorce or separation, children should be shared equally.
But research by Dr. Bren Neale and Dr. Jennifer Flowerdew, of the University of Leeds, shows that children who spend an equal amount of time in two homes are not necessarily better off than those with one.
Dr Neale said: "The principle of parental equality fails to take into account how young people experience these arrangements. Where shared residence is built on rivalry or, even worse, 'war' between the parents, then children can be considerably worse off than those living in one place."
According to the study, children may become pawns in their parents' disputes and endure a running battle that they carry with them between the two homes. Dr Neale added: "They may also suffer from a 'surfeit' of parenting: they may find themselves 'trapped' by the demands of over-needy or over-controlling parents, that prevent them from gradually taking charge of their own time and space as they grow up."
Changing a shared homes arrangement can be hard for young people. If shared residence is justified on the grounds that it is 'fair', then any attempt to alter it is seen as 'unfair'. It can become so entrenched that young people find it hard to escape, even after they have left home to go to college or university.
Instead of simplistic notions of equality, what is needed is a flexible approach that is respectful of young people and responsive to their changing needs as they grow up, the research says.
The study team carried out follow up interviews with 60 children and young people who had been interviewed three to four years previously. They found that young people can thrive under a variety of contact and residence arrangements, depending on how these are handled and how far children are respected by their parents.
Shared residence can work well when based on good quality relationships, where it is flexible and if parents are prepared to 'let go' of their children as they grow towards independence. It is less successful when rigidly enforced and designed to meet the needs of the parents rather than the children.
Christmas is, of course, a time, which reflects and symbolises the quality of family life. These are comments from young people in the study:
"One year I'll spend Christmas with my Mum and New Year with my Dad, and the next it will be the other way around. But my Dad dropped in on Christmas Day - dropped into my Mum's. They didn't use to, but they've started getting on a bit better, so he sort of drops in and has a glass of champagne or something."
"My Dad is quite jealous so he gets upset if he doesn't have equal, or more than equal of the time spent with my mother. He is a fiercely kind of, involved father. I remember a few years ago before coming to university, I met my fiancÚ and he came up and lived with me while I was still at home. So he went back and forth with me, which was mad really (laughing). Even now I've left home, I still have to try and balance it. Christmas is a nightmare. If I see Mum I have to see Dad. Even now, it is really ugh. I would recommend that the kids stay in one house and the parents move in and out. (laughing)..I think that's fairer!"
Source: Eurekalert & othersLast reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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