• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 21st August, 2009

Support the parents; let the family be

The structure of family life in the UK and elsewhere in the developed world is changing. The proportion of families in which two married biological parents live together with their children continues to dwindle. Couples are getting married and having children later. More are separating. Before about 40% of children reach the age of 16, their parents will have divorced. Nearly a quarter of children now grow up in single parent families. It is also commonplace to live unmarried with a partner and have a child. In 2005 nearly a quarter of adults under sixty were cohabiting - twice the proportion 20 years earlier. Women have achieved much greater economic independence. Same-sex marriages are legal.This shorthand survey of the state of UK family life is part of a review by Janet Walker from the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University of the threats posed by changes to the family in the 21st century. Writing in the Journal of Children’s Services, she says the high rate of divorce continues to put children’s healthy development at risk. Divorce can lead to poverty, parental conflict, the absence of parents and repeated upheaval in household composition – all known contributors to a range of emotional and behavioral disorders. Nevertheless, Jane Walker explains, research has failed to establish any causal link between parental separation and poor outcomes. One school of thought argues that divorce actually frees families from unhappy situations, and her own research provides evidence that children growing up with unhappily married parents are prone to negative outcomes.On the other side of the coin, politicians and the media persist in blaming the decline of the traditional family for a rise in antisocial behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy and educational failure, when, despite all the changes she lists, over 70% of households in the UK continue to be “nuclear”. UK policy has sought to support the preferred traditional unit, but governments are beginning to realize that irrespective of the cause, it is a losing battle, she says. The 2004 reform Every Child Matters noticeably promoted child well-being irrespective of family type. Itt amounted to acknowledgment of the evidence that it is not the structure of families, but the quality of the relationships inside them that most matters. New policies, she argues, should bolster efforts to encourage the involvement of fathers in the children’s lives, to support parents’ relationships and - when other efforts fail - to help parents establish a new system of relationships, fundamental for the well-being of their children.Support for the role of fathers in children’s lives has been working its way up the policy agenda in recent years, and there is good evidence that it contributes to healthy child development. But involving fathers is a big challenge: it emerged from an evaluation of evidence-based parenting programs in England and Wales that only 12% of participants were male. If fewer families are to break up, early intervention is key. “One of the enduring challenges for relationship counselors is how to encourage couples to seek help early when it may still be possible to salvage and strengthen the relationship,” Walker explains. Counseling sessions as part of the divorce process are too little, too late. If the breakdown is irretrievable, support should concentrate on ensuring children suffer as little as possible. This, too, she concedes is often difficult. The first step is to make the divorce process more conciliatory. See: Walker J (2009), “Family life in the 21st century: the implications for parenting policy in the UK” Journal of Children’s Services, 3, 4, pp 17-29

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