Leeds University Study on children and co-parenting (2000)
New Childhoods: children and co-parenting after divorce
UK E•S•R•C ECONOMIC & SOCIAL RESEARCH COUNCIL; An ESRC Research Programme on Children 5-16: Growing into the 21st Century; Research Briefing Number 7: The meaning of co-parenting after divorce; University of Leeds; Department of Sociology and Social Policy; Centre for Research on Family, Kinship & Childhood; Professor Carol Smart, Dr Amanda Wade, MARCH 2000
The question of how to raise children after divorce is becoming increasingly important as the numbers of children affected by divorce increases. There are indications that more parents want to be equally involved in raising their children after separation and this ethos is positively encouraged by the Children Act. Yet we know little about how children themselves experience being ‘shared’ across households: whether this is a positive experience, or whether it brings new dilemmas. This study interviewed 65 children, aged between 4–17 years, to discover what post-divorce family life was like for them when both parents continued to play a major role in their lives.
• Most of the children in the study felt that it is important to them to have both parents involved in their lives.
• For children who had moved between households from an early age, moving back and forth is simply routine. However, some children experienced emotional and practical difficulties at some stage.
• Difficulties can arise where parents are hostile to one another and where children are moving between ‘war zones’.
• Children are very keen to treat their parents equally and to ensure that they both have a ‘fair share’ but sometimes this makes it difficult for them to have time with friends.
• Children can see many benefits from the arrangement, including having ‘two of everything’. For some, these benefits mitigate the experience of having no settled home.
• Children want to be involved in decision-making about family life, although they do not want to be forced to choose between parents.
• The children who are least happy are those who feel that they cannot talk to their parents about the arrangements and who have no influence on how their time is parcelled out.
The Children Act encourages separating parents to think in terms of ‘shared’ parenting on divorce or separation in order that children can benefit from having the involvement of both parents in their lives. However, the legislation did not stipulate that shared parenting meant that children should divide their time and physical presence equally between their parents’ households.
While this is still rare it is nonetheless becoming a more common practice as parents strive to overcome the problem of ‘access dads’ or the detachment from parenting caused by living apart from children. This study therefore looked expressly for parents who were sharing the care of their children on a 50:50 basis (although sometimes this was more like a 60:40 basis because of the practicalities of shared care).
The majority of the 65 children interviewed found co-parenting after divorce was ‘normal’ once they had got over the initial disruptions.
Anna (16): I’m just so used to it I can hardly imagine it any other way. I can’t imagine it any other way. I mean, there’s a good side and a bad side to it. As there is with everything. I’m just used to it. And I get on with my life. I quite enjoy it!
Indeed, some children thought that it was preferable to living in one household:
Rosie (9): It must be a bit boring for children who don’t have separated parents. Well, obviously, unless their parents are separating. Because then it’s obviously a bit confusing and a bit scary. But I mean, go to school, go home, just do whatever you do and then it’s the same every day. Whereas with me, I get to go to a different place half the week.
Although the children accommodated to these new arrangements and even flourished under them, they could still encounter problems. These problems could evolve as children grew older and wanted to spend time with friends rather than parents. Or they could arise when one parent moved further away, re-partnered, or had further children. For some children there was a particular problem associated with ‘transitions’ from one household to another. These could be practical such as having to pack a suitcase and/or school books every week. Or they could be emotional as they had to detach from one parent and re-bond with the other.
For others, especially very young children, a week was simply too long to be away from a parent and the switch around time had to be reduced.
Lisa (8): I thought I might miss [my mum and dad] terribly and I wouldn’t want them to go and I still don’t want them to go. The boys aren’t that bothered, they say ‘OK, bye’ but I still make a big fuss about it. … [If I miss my mum or dad] I just try to get on with something nice. But it never works really because you miss the parent and you can’t really stop missing them until you see them again.
Many of the children spoke of how they kept forgetting where their books were or how they needed to pop back to the other house to fetch something. This was not a problem where their parents lived close by, but for some it was more problematical. It was particularly difficult where some parents refused to allow children to take things purchased by that parent to the other parent’s house. Some items were too expensive to have multiple copies of, for example home computers which could be very important to some children. This meant that one household could become less attractive than the other.
However, it was much more likely to be how the parents treated the children which made one home more attractive than another. Some fathers were reported to be poor home makers (one girl for example having great difficulty using her father’s lavatory because it was so dirty). Children also found it difficult to move between hostile parents.
Matt (14): They’d fight over every day. They argue over like, whoever had had like one long day or something. It’s just relentless. I wish they would stop it I suppose.
Children’s moral reasoning on post-divorce family life
This study set out to hear what children themselves had to say about family life after divorce and how they thought everyday problems and issues could be managed. The study was not about the harms of divorce or the extent to which children might be damaged.
Rather than speculating on what children’s experiences might mean for them when they became adults, we were more concerned about what their experiences meant to them in the present, as children. This shift of emphasis suggests that we need to look more closely at childhood itself rather than valuing childhood simply as a training ground for the supposedly more important life stage known as adulthood. We therefore explored the extent to which children were active ‘moral agents’ in family life. We uncovered a wealth of information about the extent to which children seek to be fair to their parents and the extent to which they care for their parents. Children also said they wanted to be treated more as members of the family, rather than as packages to be passed around only to suit the lives of the adults.
We identified 3 forms of moral reasoning:
a) An ethic of fairness
The children were very concerned to treat their parents equally and to ensure that they had equal shares of them.
Q: Is there anything that you might like to change?
Rosie (9): Yes. For there to be eight days in the week. That’s the only thing.
Q: What difference would that make?
Rosie: Four days with both people.
b) An ethic of care
We found that the children could ‘parent’ their parents in that they saw them as individuals with needs who benefited from time apart from them to follow their own interests or to have other relationships.
Beth (14): It works for my mum ’cos she’s got time with Ian [mother’s boyfriend], where they can have fish and stuff, ’cos I hate the smell of fish, and it gives her a break from like worrying about me all the time.
But children also wanted their parents to exercise these sensibilities in relation to each other and in relation to themselves.
Tom B (11): I think it’s because even though mum and dad don’t love each other they still, they’re still very kind to each other and they just get on really well, even when we swap over. [emphasis added]
c) An ethic of respect
Although we found the children could be very attentive to the needs of their parents, we also found that they wanted to be treated with respect when it came to important decisions about family matters. We used a range of vignettes with the children that reflected typical dilemmas facing children of divorce parents in order to see how they would resolve the problems. The majority of the children, even those of eight or nine, felt that all children should be able to express a view and that this view should be respected – even if it was not treated as decisive.
Mark (15): I think he should have an opinion, I don’t think he should necessarily decide, he should get a say in it, he shouldn’t just be left out, I mean it’s his life as well, he shouldn’t be stuck with someone he didn’t want to be with.
In the area of family policy there are currently discussions over the extent to which children should be involved in the divorce process, how much information they should be given, and the ways in which their wishes should be ascertained in the event of conflict between parents. The children in this study thought it would be most unfair to expect children to choose between parents but they also felt that children were members of families too and that there should be ways of involving them in discussions, rather than just telling them what the new arrangements were going to be.
Jake (11): I think there should be some kind of agreement between him and his parents as to what should happen, rather than him just deciding who he wants to live with. I think the people who are involved should get to decide, not by themselves, but by helping each other to reach some kind of agreement as to what would be best.
The children recognised that they were not in possession of the same knowledge as their parents but they wanted to be involved and to have a say. They also wanted the opportunity to discuss practicalities. For example, for many children the problems of transitions between households were solved by the expedient of having neutral time in between the parents, for example a day at school rather than changing over at a weekend.
The children had lots of innovative ideas about how to solve typical problems because they had experienced them, whilst their parents had not.
Hope (14): My family is different from other people’s but I don’t mind that because who says what a family should be like?
Although divorce and parental separation causes disruption and problems for children, this study suggests that there are reasons to be optimistic about how children can rise to the demands of post-divorce family life, particularly if they are in a position to participate in how their new lives are run.
About the study
The research was undertaken by Carol Smart, Amanda Wade and Bren Neale at the Centre for Research on Family, Kinship and Childhood at the University of Leeds. The project was a qualitative, interview based study with 65 children aged 4 – 17 years, although most children were between 7 and 15. We used a conversational interview method and included the use of vignettes activity sheets and drawings in the course of the interviews, all of which were recorded with the children’s permission. We found our sample of children through contacts with parents in the workplace, in community based projects, and through Family Court Welfare and Family Mediation Services. Often children themselves helped to recruit more contacts. We were able to recruit a diverse population through the method of ‘purposive’ sampling which ensured that the children we interviewed represented a wide range of life chances and life styles.
Further information about the project can be obtained from:
Professor Carol Smart or Dr Amanda Wade
Centre for Research on Family, Kinship & Childhood,
Department of Sociology and Social Policy
University of Leeds • Leeds LS2 9JT
tel: 0113 233 4431 • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
The research reported in this Briefing is part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Children 5-16 Research Programme, which consists of twenty-two linked research projects looking at different aspects of children’s lives in contemporary society. The central theme of the Programme is to look at children as ‘social actors’ – who make an active contribution to their families and communities and to society.
For further information, including other briefings in this series, contact the Programme Office at the address below.
Children 5-16 Research Programme
Programme Director – Professor Alan Prout
Department of Applied Social Sciences • University of Stirling • Stirling • FK9 4LA
For Briefing enquiries contact Sue Hodgson:
tel/fax: 01482 355531 • email: S.Hodgson@cas.hull.ac.uk
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