The Unreported Flaws Behind Penelope Leach’s ‘Toxic Truth’

Parenting guru Penelope Leach’s recent claim that after parents split, no child under four can spend even one night away from their primary carer – usually their mother without the risk of lasting damage – has caused a storm of controversy in family law. Her latest book, Family Breakdown, cites “undisputed evidence” that overnight separation from mum can adversely affect a child’s brain development.

These trenchant certainties threaten to have an enormous impact on parents and judges who are often confused about what is best after couples split.

Leach’s influence is even more worrying because science shows her “undisputed evidence” may well be wrong. She relies on a study from Australia (McIntosh el al 2010) Responding to this study, the American Psychological Association (APA) has published a paper, Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report,  endorsed by 110 of the world’s leading child mental health experts from 15 countries, repudiating its conclusions. The lead author of the Australian study has subsequently dropped the conclusions that Leach relies upon, stating: “Cautions against overnight care during the first three years are not supported.” Sadly for so many children and their parents, Leach does not include this addendum in her book.

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We cannot afford for such important questions about child welfare to become an ideological battleground. Parents, mediators, lawyers  – and the judiciary – need clear guidance grounded in sound evidence. That’s why the APA review is so valuable, since it provides an overview of 45 years of settled and accepted research.

“We found no support for the idea that children under four (some say under six) need to spend nearly all their time living with only one parent, when their other parent is also loving and attentive,” the lead author Professor Richard Warshak said. “Warnings against infants and toddlers spending overnight time with each parent are inconsistent with what we know about the development of strong, positive parent-child relationships. Babies and toddlers need parents who respond consistently, affectionately and sensitively to their needs. They do not need, and most do not have, one parent’s full-time, round-the-clock presence.”

At Focus we can, in many cases if you and your children want, talk to your children in confidence about their thoughts, wishes and feelings.  It won’t be easy for either of you, but at the end of it we hope that you will have reached an agreement that you both feel works for you and most importantly your children.

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