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A holistic approach, replacing fragmented interventions, should support couple partnerships and how both parents relate to their children.
Today we have an opportunity, probably for the first time, to redesign family and public services in ways that will genuinely benefit families and maximise the impact on child development. You might think that’s already happening. It isn’t – at least not nearly enough.
We estimate, for example, that of thousands of parenting classes in the US, UK and many developed countries, 90 per cent are attended only by mothers. So factors crucial to child development – fathers and the parental couple relationship – are mostly left out, even though early interventions, including both parents, are known to prevent later problems.
How can we explain this extraordinary omission? It’s partly a legacy of failures in social science research to look beyond mother-child relationships. That’s now been rectified, but the problem has long been compounded by fragmented social services which spread help for families across many isolated departments and programs. Our challenge is to modernise systems to deliver services based on evidence.
Child development evidence
In the past 20 years, research has clearly identified two major determinants of early child development that social scientists previously ignored and that practitioners and policy makers have only begun to incorporate into public service delivery.
The first determinant is a key asset to children – their fathers. And here we mean fathers who are positively involved with their children. The second is an environment that is also vital for child development: the quality of the relationship between their carers, who are usually their parents.
We now know that if we can support fathers and parenting partnerships – as well as the mother-child relationship – the future for children will be a great deal rosier.
Since the 1980s, research has produced a wealth of indisputable evidence demonstrating the positive contributions that fathers can – and do – make to children’s development and well-being. The research also shows that children benefit from the involvement of a second parental figure – and that person may not be the mother or father but the child’s grandparent, uncle, aunt, or a close family friend.
“The structures and delivery systems of most public services still largely reflect an erroneous view that the mother-child relationship is the only one that really matters.”
More recently, since the late 1990s, research has filled in the second part of the puzzle. We, and many other researchers, have shown that unresolved couple conflict – whether between intact or separated parental couples – is a risk factor for child development. We now know that the quality of the relationship between two parents makes a big difference in how children manage their lives.
If parents collaborate effectively and don’t undermine each other’s parenting, children do better – socially, emotionally, behaviourally and academically. They don’t become preoccupied with worry about parental tensions, which leaves them free to explore their own worlds and learn new things. In contrast, it undermines child development if parents cannot manage differences of opinion without aggression or moving into a silent, “we’re not talking to each other” pattern; they become anxious or fearful and find it difficult to concentrate on learning new things.
The challenge to family and public services
Fixing family and public services in the light of this evidence is challenging for two reasons. First, the structures and delivery systems of most public services still largely reflect an erroneous view that the mother-child relationship is the only one that really matters. Fathers are often excluded from programs.
Second, these systems, particularly in health and social services, are fragmented and involve many disconnected, “siloed” units. These rarely coordinate their attempts to be helpful, and sometimes work at cross-purposes. This fragmentation makes it difficult to deliver holistic interventions to support child development through children’s key relationships and the broader contexts in which they can thrive.
Family services commonly encompass numerous distinct interventions from siloed units that typically focus on mother and child, such as maternal and child health services, child support services or child mental health interventions. Our most vivid example of men being ignored by such services is based on visits we made to several Family Resource Centers in rural California.
We observed fathers driving their wives to appointments and sitting outside in the parking lot while mother and baby went in for their appointment. Those men could so easily have been involved, but they were not invited to appointments about their babies. As if mirroring this stance, the case files for those families included only the names of the mother and baby, but not the father.
Why is practice so slow to reform? Public services generally respond sluggishly to cultural change. One reason is that many social services agencies work with deeply troubled families, some with a history of violence. The staff, mostly women, may come to the conclusion that men are generally violent when, in fact, most men are not. Fathers can then be seen as liabilities for child development rather than assets in caring for children.
Compounding this problem, agency staff often tell us that they are not trained to work with both parents together. In anticipation of parents’ differing opinions, they hesitate to invite both parents in.
Reforming child development practice and policy
How might policy and practice change to promote healthy development that children need but often miss: fathers’ involvement and collaborative, supportive parental relationships?
For 20 years, we and our colleagues, Marsha Kline Pruett and Kyle Pruett, have pioneered an approach to parenting support through a 16-week course for groups of couples with clinically trained leaders. It includes both fathers and mothers and focusses on the relationship between them, not simply on dispensing advice about childrearing.
“We observed fathers driving their wives to appointments and sitting in the parking lot while mother and baby went in. Those men could so easily have been involved but were not invited.”
In the United States, the programme is known as Supporting Father Involvement, originally funded by the California Office of Child Abuse Prevention. In Britain, the program is called Parents as Partners, and it has been introduced in 20 cities, operated by Tavistock Relationships in conjunction with Family Action, funded currently by the UK Department for Work and Pensions.
Our research in the US and Britain shows that this combination – support that includes both parents and focuses on their relationship as partners and parents – is most effective in staving off declines in satisfaction within their relationship. It also reduces their symptoms of depression, anxiety, and parenting stress. These benefits help maximise positive child development outcomes. In contrast, fathers-only or mothers-only parenting classes continue to be characterised by a fall in couple satisfaction and poorer outcomes.
All of this makes sense. After all, we know that a good couple relationship often breeds success at work and is good for personal health. We now have evidence that it’s also good for the children.
Focus on prevention
We also need a better focus on prevention. Over the past 40 years, we have worked with well-functioning and troubled families, some wealthier and many poorer. Many parents and children in both groups have challenging difficulties in their relationships. We have found that interventions with groups of couples, using trained facilitators, can help parents or parent figures become more effective and satisfied as co-parents. When that happens, child development is enhanced. Their children’s behavior improves, along with the well-being of the whole family.
One of the lessons of our research is that it’s possible to take a preventive, early intervention approach to strengthening families and supporting child development, dealing with difficulties long before they become intractable. Early interventions have two benefits. First, families are likely to be experiencing less volatility or violence. Second, the parents are more often still together, so we can work with the whole family. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which followed thousands of vulnerable US families in many cities, found that in 75 per cent of cases, the father is present around the birth and intends to stay involved. This, then, is when services should be supporting fathers, mothers and their relationships as partners – during pregnancy, childbirth, and well-baby visits.
The future looks brighter
It is easy to become downhearted looking at the continuing gulf between research findings on child development and current policy and practice. However, expectations are growing that public services will strategize better by integrating their interventions and focussing on outcomes rather than inputs.
The need to maximise child development grows ever stronger for 21st century economies where national success will depend on adaptable, psychologically healthy labour forces and families. These conditions offer a fair wind to policy makers and practitioners who have much to gain by avoiding the omissions of the past.