Another Monday morning and another breath taking piece of madness lands on my desk…
I was about to start writing about the Children’s Rights Report in which the following mind blowing conclusion was highlighted
Relationships with parents – The strong view was that the law about this should say that keeping relationships with parents when a child has been separated from them should depend on whether the child wants the relationship or not. It should not be kept up if either of the parents wanted it without the child also wanting it..
when I opened my inbox to find the Fatherhood Institute quoted in the Daily Mail saying
If parents know when they separate they will both be in trouble if their child starts misbehaving it will transform the drift of fathers away from their children.
What kind of insanity is this? On the one hand, the Family Justice Review are highlighting the idea that children themselves want to be given the responsibility for choosing whether they stay in touch with a parent or not after separation. On the other, the Fatherhood Institute are promoting the idea that if dads know they are going to get into trouble for the wrong doings of their children, it will somehow keep them in the picture. What on earth are the Fatherhood Institute going to do if children decide that they just don’t want dad in their lives after separation? Who will we blame then for the riots and broken Britain? The children themselves? I am very sure that the Children’s Rights Director for England (CRD), Roger Morgan, and his team will be up in arms if that becomes a reality.
There is something deeply wrong with the rhetoric around family separation and the disparate efforts to address the issues that are attributed to it. The conversation, it seems to me, is always about either empowering children or punishing parents. This is the complete opposite of what is needed to support a family through such difficult times, but it is one that enjoys a widespread audience. It seems to me that, when families are together, their lives are their own; private and within their own control. At the point of separation, however, the family is suddenly plunged centre stage, open to scrutiny, with the parents blamed and shamed. Whether it be mothers or fathers, if you are separated you are labelled, categorised, judged and found wanting. Whilst your children, themselves the parents of the future, are viewed with sorrow and with pity or, conversely, when they are out on the streets rioting, with fear and loathing.
The idea that children are best placed to tell us what should happen after family separation is all pervasive now, starting with the idea of wishes and feelings and ending with the proposal put forward in the Children’s Rights report, that children should determine whether a parent remains in their life after separation. What I know about children who are given this responsibility, is that they are vulnerable, confused and frightened. They are affected by the emotional disarray of the adults around them and they are at risk of being put in the position of parenting their own parents.
The madness that assumes that in the middle of this children should be given the right and responsibility to decide their future relationships with parents is horrifying and a complete abdication of adult responsibility. Why bother with parenting at all if we are going to simply hand over the decision making power to children at the point when parents separate. If this proposal by children is accepted by the Family Justice Review without careful analysis, we will have truly entered into a dangerous world. A world in which children have the power and the responsibility for determining how our society lives. A world in which scenes such as those played out in London and other major cities, in the summer, will repeat themselves over and over.
The Fatherhood Institute’s big idea is that fathers need to be threatened with responsibility for their children in order to keep them connected to the family after separation. For the Fatherhood Institute, the idea that an expensive parenting programme will solve the ills of our broken society is not far fetched. Not only is this naïve in the extreme, it is at odds with what policy and practice around family separation delivers. It doesn’t matter how many courses we import from other countries or how much we threaten a dad with responsibility for his child until that child is eighteen. In the current climate, if his child does not want a relationship with him and we follow the Children’s Rights proposals, he won’t get past first base after separation, never mind stay connected until his child is eighteen.
Those who seek the answers to family separation through talking to children or importing parenting programmes from other countries, miss the point entirely. The issue of family separation cannot be fixed by passing responsibility to children or from outside of the family itself. Family separation is not something that other people experience, it is not something that only happens to poor people. Family separation happens right across our society, its an experience that we can all face at some point in our lives and its something that is incredibly painful for everyone when it happens. In short, if you are a parent, it could happen to you.
The answers to family separation, therefore, are right in front of us, in the families that we nurture and the parenting that we seek to support. No-one in their right mind would seek to ask a child whether or not they want a parent in their lives when the family is intact. In those circumstances, children are children, they are the responsibility of their parents and their parents ensure that their wishes and feelings are heard but that they, the adults, make the decisions, not the children.
When the family is intact, who would think of devising, developing or importing a programme that forces dad to stay connected to the family? When the family lives together, dad is part of the fabric of the family, sometimes hero, sometimes struggling, always present. When the family is intact, mum and dad exist in relationship to each other and children are part of that. What to do after separation in supporting these families is very much the same as what we do prior to separation and its not about elevating children to judge and jury and its not about getting out the big stick to beat dad into submission.
Separated families require respect, understanding and empathy. Respect for the fact that they continue to do their very best for their children, understanding because they are struggling with some fairly painful feelings and empathy because one day it could be us embarking on that journey. When the family is intact, we focus our support around mum and dad, when the family separates, we need to continue to do that. Children who experience their mother and father working together through the tough times, even when the decision is made to separate, do not need to be asked whether they want a parent to stay in their lives or not. Only children whose parents are struggling to co-operate, those who are blaming and shaming and competing for power are those who are negatively affected. The fact that too many parents are struggling with those dynamics is an indicator of the fact that we have not yet got the support we offer right yet.
Supporting separated families is not about scrutinising and pointing the finger, its not about blaming dads and shaming mothers, its about acknowledging that at the point of crisis, families need the kind of help that will pull them through. The help that can be given may not necessarily pull the family through intact, but it can ensure that mothers and fathers remain capable of coping together. It can be given in ways that support confidence and pride, instead of further demolishing the self esteem of two previously capable people.
Most of all, it can be given in ways that enable parents to remain parents, so that their children do not have to become the arbiters of future relationships. Those of us working with separated families day in, day out, know that on the whole these are not problem families, they are simply families in need of a helping hand. Lets put away the big sticks and stop burdening our children with responsibilities they should never have to shoulder and grow up and take charge. Less finger pointing, more respect and we, as the parents of today, might just bring about something different for tomorrow.