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What young children need above all things, according to family psychologist Oliver James and many others in the field, is a tuned-in and responsive carer and a stable home life. Children need to feel secure about the place they live in and the people they live with. Their main carer needs to be someone who can focus in on the child's minute-to-minute needs, can delight in their achievements, and respond appropriately to the challenges they present. This sounds simple, but, as every parent knows, it is actually very hard to achieve day in, day out. The stressful elements of modern life, such as juggling home life alongside work, earning enough to pay the bills, and maintaining personal relationships all appear to be much harder in the 21st century than it was years ago. These competing pressures can easily distract us from the task of parenting. It takes ingenuity and honest personal assessment to steer a course through all of this and find a way of living and parenting that works for you and your child.
Do you need a 'Mum and Dad' to be a healthy, happy child?
After more than a century of research and writing on the development of infants, the experts generally agree about the best ways to promote a young child's emotional and physical health. However, where their opinions tend to differ is on the question of what kind of family make-up will succeed in giving a child the stability that he or she needs. In short, they disagree on whether you need a 'Mum and Dad.' The convention of our society, probably right up until World War II, was that married couples had the monopoly on raising children. Since then, family life in the UK has changed dramatically. Our increasing cultural diversity has shown us contrasting family models from around the world. Same sex relationships are now acknowledged by the state as they have never been before, and the secularisation of society, amongst many other factors, has made cohabitation, as opposed to marriage, a much more prevalent life-choice. Recent figures also show that nearly a third of us now live alone. All of these types of households have children in them. Women choose to become mothers in ways previously unimagined, through sperm donation or other routes. The individual stories of triumph and success that abound from women and men who take such paths to parenthood mean that it is hard for anyone to argue against the choices of those who parent without a 'Dad' in their house, as well as those fathers who parent without a 'Mum' around.
But argue they do. With so much change and so much variance between British households, whether we are succeeding in giving children the stable environments they need is a subject often debated in the media and by academics alike. The experts divide themselves into two main camps; those who argue that married heterosexual couples are the only ones who stand a chance of raising healthy happy children, and those who say that if the elements of stability are present, the make-up of the household is irrelevant.
How will you achieve the stability your child will need?
It may be an uncomfortable truth for those who adopt a 'live and let live' attitude to modern British life that stability for children is harder to achieve in certain kinds of family make-up, at least according to the statistics. A recent study at York University found that, "Family instability and change seem to be an important element in young children's behavioural and emotional problems." (Unmarried Parenthood, Family Trajectories, Parent and Child Well Being, Kathleen E Kiernan and Fiona K Mensah, University of York , March 2009). In this study, children who had been subject to their parents separating, either before or after their birth, found life a little tougher than those who had not. Put another way, children do not live in a vacuum and are subject to the highs and lows of their parents' lives. This is visible in the way they feel and behave.
When faced with the break-up of a relationship, or raising a child alone, it may be harder for those parents enduring such situations to keep on answering 'Yes' to the important questions listed below. The theory is that this means that they are not providing the same type of parenting that those who are not going through such traumatic times would provide. So let's leave the discussion on the make-up of a family unit to one side for the moment and take a closer look at the kind of parenting that may go towards creating a stable family life for you and your child, whatever your personal circumstances. Have a go at answering these questions honestly if you are reading this and wondering if you are ready to become a parent:
- Can you set aside 'quality family time' and be physically present and available to your child for at least a part of each day?
- Can you love unconditionally, putting your own needs aside in order to meet your child's when necessary?
- Can you take the time to communicate with your child?
- Can you share your values, ethos, and moral beliefs and be a role model?
- Can you demonstrate commitment and perseverance, even when the going is tough?
- Finally, can you do all of this among the many other competing elements of your life?
These are big questions and only you know your answers. Chances are though, that if you are genuinely able to attempt answering 'yes' to them, you'll be a great parent, whatever the make-up of your household.
Two myths still prevail in modern society:
- Having a child will bring you closer to your partner. Don't fall for this Disney-esque view of 'and the baby makes three'; all the anecdotal and statistical evidence unfortunately points in the other direction. Having a baby is stressful, physically tiring and emotionally challenging. If there are cracks in your relationship prior to your having a child, they will still be there once he or she arrives, and will most likely widen, not shrink. So if you are thinking about having a child, or are unexpectedly pregnant, be honest with yourself about what extra strain will be put on your relationship and talk to your GP if you are worried.
- Children will be happier if their parents separate than argue constantly if they are unhappy with each other. It is natural to disagree and to argue in personal relationships to an extent though, and in fact, showing your children how you put things right can be an important element of their emotional education. If your relationship is going through difficult times and you are worried about the impact on your children, you can also access help through your GP or Relate (who help all couples, married, cohabiting, heterosexual or same sex.)