Research - Childhood report summary
END OF AWARD REPORT
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ESRC AWARD REFERENCE NUMBER L129251049
AWARDING BOARD ESRC
AWARD TERMINATION DATE 31.07.1999
END OF AWARD REPORT DUE DATE 31.10.1999
AWARD AMOUNT £110,134
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project at the University of Bristol.
Centre for Research on Family Kinship & Childhood
Department of Sociology and Social Policy
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT TEL: 0113 233 4431
FAX: 0113 233 4415
There is a growing awareness of the extent to which childhood
has changed and is changing in late twentieth century Britain.
One of the main factors influencing this change is the rise
in divorce and the increasingly common childhood experience
of having parents who live in separate homes (often with new
partners). Recently, family policy has been actively attempting
to ‘mould’ post-divorce post-divorce parenthood
into a joint parenting model in order to ensure that children
retain both parents in their lives. While in some cases parents
agree residence and liberal contact arrangements, others are
choosing to literally ‘share’ the upbringing of
their children, arranging for them to move on a routine basis
between the two parental households. As yet we know little
about how children themselves regard being shared in this
way, whether they find it a positive experience, or whether
it brings new dilemmas. The objectives of this study have
remained consistent and are to explore the experiences of
children engaged in this new form of family life and to locate
their experiences in the context of how childhood is changing
more generally. Implicit in the research is a desire that
a real consideration of children’s own views should
be brought into the development of family policy.
Please describe, on a separate sheet and in no more than 1000
words, the main research results in non-technical language.
Please refer to the Guidelines.
2. Full Report of Research Activities and Results
A full report of no more than 5000 words should be attached
to this form. Please refer to the Guidelines for details on
the preparation of the report.
3. Significant achievements
Please list below up to five of the most significant outcomes
of your research. These might include: theoretical developments,
new findings, new methods, new datasets, impact of the research
on others (e.g. academics, policy-makers, practitioners etc.).
• The study offers a refinement of ideas on how transformations
in family practices give rise to new formations of childhood;
• It also throws light on how children
themselves come to reformulate their own understandings of
‘family’ in the light of changing family practices
• Additionally, it provides a re-theorisation of the
moral agency of children and contributes to debates on children
and citizenship, specifically the idea of children as citizens
of the family.
• The study has proved to be particularly
timely. Our findings are proving to be of considerable interest
to policy makers and practitioners (in the UK and abroad)
who work in the field of family law and who are concerned
with children’s participation in the divorce process
and/or the issue of supporting families.
• In terms of methodology, we have extended
and consolidated skills in empowering children within research
interviews (a subject which has also proved to be of interest
to practitioners and generated requests for us to contribute
to training workshops on communicating with children).
What specific plans do you have for further
dissemination and publication of the outcomes and results
of the research?
The main vehicle for dissemination will be a book to be published
by Polity Press entitled: Changing Childhoods/Changing Families.
Other planned publications include:
• ‘Objects of Concern? - Children
and Divorce’ to be published in Child and Family Law
• ‘Divorce and Family Practices’ submitted
to The Sociological Review;
• ‘Children and Co-Parenting’. In: Children
and the Changing Family, edited by An-Magrit Jensen, one of
a series of books arising out of the Children 5-16 research
programme, which is to be published by Falmer Press;
• Hopes, Dreams, Divorce ... Life! A book for children,
for which a publisher is to be sought early in the New Year.
Conference and seminar presentations
A number of conference and seminar presentations are also
planned. Carol Smart is to give papers at:-
• The University of New Brunswick, 23 March 2000;
• The Family Policy Forum, Amsterdam, 9 June 2000;
• The International Society of Family Law conference,
Brisbane, July 2000;
• The Ninth National Family Law conference, Sydney,
6 July 2000;
• The Australian Institute for Family Law, Sydney, 24-26
Amanda Wade is to give papers at:
• The Millennium Families Conference, Edinburgh, November
• The ESRC Seminar Group on ‘Post-modern’
Kinship, University of Leeds, December 1999;
• The National Family Mediation annual training weekend,
University of Nottingham, April 2000.
5. Nominated Publications
Please list below the two nominated publications
which should be assessed along with this report (see section
2.4 of the guidelines). Please give full details. Six copies
of any nominated publications must be submitted with the End
of Award Report.
1. ‘Objects of Concern - Children and
Divorce’ Child and Family Law Quarterly, 1999, 11(4):
2. ‘Facing the Unfamiliar: Children and
Co-Parenting’; Chapter 7 of Changing Childhoods/Changing
Families to be published by Polity Press in 2000.
Please detail appointments and departures
below. For each person, please note their name, age, grade
and for departing staff, their destination type on leaving.
(Destination types: Academic post, Commercial, Public Sector,
With effect from 1st April 1996 investigators
will be able to vire between grant headings without reference
to Council, except where items of major capital are being
provided for. Please detail below any changed use of resources
and the benefits or problems this brought.
1. £372.05 was moved from the ‘exceptional’
heading into ‘travel’ to cover the additional
expense involved in meeting twice with interviewees (see 8
2. £411.28 was moved from the ‘exceptional’
heading into ‘consumables’ to equip Dr. Wade with
a high quality tape-recorder and microphone (Sony Professional).
Some of the children interviewed spoke rather quietly and
the equipment available in the department was not sufficiently
sensitive to provide a clear recording of what they said.
8. Major difficulties
Please detail below any major difficulties,
either scientific or administrative/logistical, encountered
during your research and comment on any consequent impact
on the project. Further details should be included in the
main report, including any advice you might have for resolving
such problems in future projects.
We did not encounter any major difficulties.
However, recruiting our sample was not easy and proved to
be a very time consuming task. We had planned to find participants
by bringing the research to the attention of parents through
advertisements in workplaces, and by means of articles and
broadcasts in the local media. However, the initial response
to our recruitment drive was disappointing. It seems that
the widespread assumption that divorce has adverse effects
on children places a heavy burden on parents and many were
reluctant to involve their children in the study fearing it
may distress them or highlight aspects of their own behaviour
about which they were uncomfortable. While we continued to
place advertisements in a range of publications and venues
we therefore broadened our strategy by seeking the assistance
of the Family Court Welfare Service and Family Mediation,
and through activities such as participation in a Children’s
Festival. Snowball sampling was also helpful, with children
we had already interviewed proving to be influential advocates
for the study amongst their schoolfriends (and friends’
parents). Nevertheless, the sample is a little smaller than
that we had proposed. We had hoped to interview 80 children
but concluded our fieldwork once we had interviewed 65 children
being co-parented across households, as it was thought that
it would not be cost effective to try to extend the sample
further. A further 10 children with ‘non-separated’
parents were interviewed as an aid to comparison.
In terms of solutions to the problem of recruitment,
it is likely that access to children will often have to be
negotiated through gatekeepers. However, it may be that the
development of a wider recognition of children as persons
with valid viewpoints of their own, will enable them to exercise
more choice about research participation. Nevertheless, we
are keenly aware that investigating children’s views
on their family lives can be a sensitive topic for parents
and that good communication and full information are important
in securing parents’ trust and co-operation.
In relation to parents, an ethical issue which
arose concerns the consent process. We had intially planned
to secure the consent of both parents to their child’s
participation in the study but this proved unsustainable,
particularly where the relationship between the parents was
problematic or where children were keen to participate and
were supported in this by one parent but had their involvement
vetoed by the other. We therefore decided to take a more flexible
approach and be guided by the contacting parent on this matter.
We should also note that although we had proposed
a single interview with the majority of children, in practice
we found it helpful to have a preliminary meeting to allow
children to become familiar with us, and ask questions about
the project. Although, again, this was time consuming and
led to additional travel costs etcetera, we feel it was a
valuable exercise, enabling us to obtain particularly rich
accounts from the children, who had been given time to think
about what they wanted to tell us and also to feel at ease
with the interviewer.
9. Other issues and unexpected outcomes
Please describe any outcomes of your research,
beneficial or otherwise, that were not expected at the outset,
or other issues which were important to the research, where
these are not addressed above. Further details should be included
in the main report.
For those unfamiliar with children, the richness
of the data we have gathered and the thoughtfulness and articulacy
with which the children express themselves (irrespective of
their age), has been a revelation. Once the children’s
views are heard it is difficult to sustain a belief that we
have little to learn from them, or that they do not have a
capacity for making balanced evaluations of their circumstances.
The quality of the interviews which the children gave us also
indicates that they can be willing to discuss potentially
sensitive issues with persons they do not know well, given
the right conditions. It might have been expected that within
the space of a single interview (albeit with a preliminary
meeting with the interviewer) the data would be bland and
unrevealing - in other words, the children would simply tell
us what they thought we wanted to hear, or give a rather superficial
account of their family lives. However, this was not the case,
and some talked at length about difficulties and dilemmas
they have faced as well as the positive aspects of their lives.
Of course, the fact that the children chose to take part in
the study means that they were motivated to work with us,
but we also believe that the care they took over the accounts
which they gave us reflects the value they place on being
listened to with respect and their ability to rise to this
opportunity, given the occasion to do so.
10. Nominated Rapporteur
Please suggest the name of one person who would
be suitable to act as an independent rapporteur for your project.
Please state full address and telephone number.
Professor Julia Brannen
Thomas Coram Research Unit
Institute of Education
University of London
27-28 Woburn Square
London WC1H 0AA
Tel: 0171 612 6951
1.1. The question of how to raise children after a divorce
is becoming increasingly important as the numbers of children
affected by their parents’ divorce increases. There
are indications that more parents want to be equally involved
in raising their children after separation and this ethos
is positively encouraged by the Children Act. Yet we know
little about how children themselves experience being ‘shared’
across households; whether this is a positive experience,
or whether it brings new dilemmas. In this study, we have
interviewed 65 co-parented children to discover what family
life is like for them when both post-divorce parents continue
to play a major role in their lives.
1.2. Much research on children and divorce focuses
on parental separation as a form of childhood adversity and
is concerned to determine whether or how this might affect
children in the short and long term. By contrast, we focus
on the currency of children’s experiences and thus look
more closely at childhood itself rather than valuing childhood
simply as a training ground for the supposedly more important
life stage known as adulthood. We have therefore explored
the children’s views on family life; how they think
the everyday problems and issues which can be encountered
by children whose parents live apart might be managed; and
the extent to which the children are active moral agents in
2.1. Most of the children felt that it is important to them
to have both parents involved in their lives after a divorce.
They wanted their parents to play a full part as parents and
saw ‘parenting’ as involving activities intimately
bound up with day-to-day family life. So it might include,
for example, checking that the children have done their homework
or are up, washed and dressed in time for school, as well
as sharing meals, companionship, and activities together.
For this reason, the children mostly endorsed the practice
of co-parenting after a divorce and expressed a preference
for this as opposed to having a home with one parent and contact
with the other. A ‘contact’ arrangement, they
thought, would inevitably diminish their relationship with
the non-residential parent.
2.2. The desire for a close relationship with
both parents meant that the majority of the children were
prepared to tolerate the demands of continually moving between
two households. Indeed, for young children co-parented from
an early age, moving between their two homes often became
routine. Others, however, experienced emotional and practical
difficulties at some stage. Change-overs could be a particularly
difficult time when children had to part from one parent and
re-bond with the other. Some found it helpful to have an intervening
activity between leaving one home and re-joining the other
and so preferred change-overs to be on a school day. Others
developed particular routines for dealing with the transitions,
such as having a family meal, or a period of quiet to unpack
and settle in. The time spent in each household could be especially
important. For young children, a week was simply too long
to be away from a parent, while for older children too short
a time in each home could be unsettling.
2.3. Difficulties could arise where parents
were hostile to each other, especially if the children themselves
became a focus of conflict or were subject to conflicting
loyalties. However, some children felt strongly that parental
conflict should not be a barrier to co-parenting and that
parents should resist the temptation to draw the children
into their disputes. Other problems might occur over time,
such as one parent moving further away, re-partnering, or
having further children. As children grew older they sometimes
experienced a tension between wanting to spend time with their
parents and wanting to be with friends. This could reduce
their commitment to co-parenting, particularly where the geographical
distance between the two homes made it hard to engage in peer
social activities. The children who were least happy with
co-parenting were those who felt they could not talk to their
parents about the arrangements and had no influence over how
their time was divided between their two homes.
2.4. Most of the children saw their families
as ‘normal’ once they had got over the initial
disruption of the divorce. They saw the quality of the relationships
within a family as being of much more importance than its
having a normative structure so, especially where they had
good relationships with their parents and saw the latter as
being happier since their separation, were disinclined to
express a wish for them to become re-united.
2.5. Not all the children had good relationships
with their parents. Where parents were experienced as unreliable
or uncaring, were oppressive in their behaviour, or paid little
attention to the children’s wishes and feelings, they
risked alienating their affections. The experience of family
restructuring and re-negotiation of family relationships faces
children with re-thinking their ideas about what a family
is and what parenting involves. This often gave children an
awareness of themselves as separate persons (rather than as
extensions of their parents) and as having choices. Where
they re-appraised a parent critically over a lengthy period,
they would sometimes exercise their sense of choice by seeking
to reduce or even sever contact.
2.6. The children valued relationships based
on ties of love and affection. They valued parents who had
time for them, who prioritised and met their needs, and who
listened to them and treated their views with respect. They
wanted to be involved in decisions about family life and aspired
to be treated as ‘citizens’ within the family,
not as packages to be passed around to suit the lives only
of the adults.
2.7. If they wanted their parents to treat them
‘fairly’, children also saw themselves as having
a responsibility to be fair. Excessive ‘neediness’
in parents could be burdensome to children but within relationships
of care and respect they could be attentive to their parents’
needs; thoughtful about how their own actions might affect
them; and actively caring in innumerable small ways such as
making tea for a tired parent, or having a ‘nice’
conversation with a parent who was sad or lonely.
One of the key questions posed by the sociology of childhood
concerns the extent to which childhood can be said to change
over time and in relation to different social conditions.
In this study we have been concerned with the ways in which
changes in parenting are transforming children’s lives
and specifically their experiences of family. One of the most
significant of these changes in parenting since the 1970’s
has been the increase in the divorce rate and the extent to
which children now have parents who live in separate households.
But there has also recently been another shift in post-divorce
parenthood away from the model of the custodial parent and
parent with access, towards a co-parenting project in which
children are ‘shared’ across households.
The Children Act 1989 has encouraged separating
parents to think in terms of joint parenting on divorce in
order that children can benefit from the continued involvement
of both parents in their lives. The Act abolished the concept
of custody replacing it with that of parental responsibility,
which is defined as an inalienable responsibility that is
neither removed nor diminished by divorce. It was hoped that
this shift in terminology would dispel the perception that
the law sees children as ‘belonging’ to the residential
parent and promote a greater willingness among parents to
focus on the interests of their child rather than their feelings
about each other. It was not anticipated that joint parenting
would significantly alter arrangements for the day to day
care of children but rather encourage new attitudes and more
co-operation between former partners. However, as parents
strive to overcome the problems associated with contact, especially
the detachment from parenting which can be associated with
living apart from children, it is becoming increasingly common
for them to arrange for children to divide their time (and
physical presence) between their parents’ households.
This newly emerging model of parenting, in part a response
to the legislation but possibly as much an adaptive response
to the specific circumstances and demands which separated
parents now face, represents a challenge to normative western
concepts of child care in which stability is seen as central
to children’s well-being. As yet, little is known about
how children themselves experience being ‘shared’
in this way, whether they see this as a positive experience,
or whether it brings new dilemmas. In this exploratory study
we have conducted interviews with 65 co-parented children
in order to begin to understand how they respond to this new
form of parenting and how it is shaping their childhoods.
There have, of course, been a wealth of studies
which have addressed the question of children and divorce.
In most cases, however, these have been concerned with outcomes
and the ways in which divorce can be said to affect children’s
life chances. Thus the focus has been on divorce as a form
of adversity, investigating its effect on children’s
short and long-term social, emotional and cognitive development,
with a view to developing more effective strategies of child
welfare. It is hard to break the chain of reasoning associated
with such studies, not least because in doing so it can appear
that one is indifferent to the miseries associated with family
breakdown. Nevertheless, we have wanted to step outside this
framework in order to offer a different perspective. This
means that our study is not designed to assess how children
raised across households compare in their functioning with
children from intact, custodial or solo-parenting families,
nor is it primarily concerned to evaluate how co-parenting
‘works’ (although we do consider this from the
children’s perspective). Instead, the study locates
its examination of this new development in post-divorce parenting
within a sociological examination of changes in the family
and contemporary childhood. Rather than offering ideas on
what is ‘good’ for children, or how parents can
parent ‘better’ after a divorce, we have explored
what children have to say about their experiences of family
life in the light of the co-parenting ethos which structures
their lives, and the way in which their experiences inform
their concepts of what a family should be.
• to explore new forms of post-divorce childhood from
the perspective of the sociology of childhood
The emphasis given by the sociology of childhood to children
as social actors is at the heart of this project. Rather than
focusing on the difficulties children experience at the time
of their parents’ separation, or how children whose
parents divorce turn out as adults, we have wanted to highlight
the importance of children’s experiences as children
and understand more about the actuality of their lives in
the here and now. As indicated above, this has meant moving
beyond the developmental and dependency paradigms which have
dominated previous research in this field. We do not assume,
for example, that children should be regarded as the passive
victims of their parents’ divorce, nor that differences
in their intellectual, moral or social capacities mean that
their views and experiences are of less value than those of
adults. Thus we have looked at how children rise to the challenge
of their new childhoods, exploring their perceptions of the
positives as well as the negatives of co-parenting, and their
means of influencing their families and actively contributing
to family life.
• to investigate specifically the experience of children
living under the ethos of co-parenting
Co-parenting stands in marked contrast to the practices of
custodial or solo parenting which until recently have provided
the more usual solution on divorce, and represents a challenge
to the normative frameworks which emphasise the importance
to children of having a single, settled home. Debates about
the effects on children of routinely moving between households
are limited by the dearth of information from children themselves.
In this study we have interviewed 65 children who are ‘shared’
in this way and have been concerned to explore what it means
for children to have both parents actively involved in their
lives after separation and what costs and benefits there might
be from the perspective of the child.
• to give consideration to children’s perspectives
on independence and autonomy where they are inhabiting two
households and interacting within two discrete parental milieus
In considering how co-parenting structures children’s
experiences in the here and now, we have wanted to investigate
whether this new form of parenting grants new freedoms to
children as they move between households or whether the requirement
that they meet the parenting needs of two households rather
than one places increased restrictions on their opportunities
for social independence and personal autonomy. We have also
wanted to explore how children make the emotional and practical
transitions from one household to another, particularly where
their parents’ values and lifestyles differ. We have
done this by focusing in a grounded way in interviews on the
actualities of the children’s lives and the day-to-day
practices in each household. Additionally, we have considered
independence and autonomy in the more abstract sense of the
extent to which the children regard themselves as separate
persons rather than as an extension of their parents. We have
been concerned to know if the experience of family restructuring
has led the children to think in new ways about the concept
of ‘family’; whether they see themselves as having
choices about where, how, and with whom they live; and how
their experiences might be said to inform the moral reasoning
which they apply to the resolution of everyday dilemmas which
can be faced by children whose parents live apart.
• to observe the impact of children’s agency on
these post-divorce arrangements and the impact of these new
arrangements on children’s social lives
Children have little say in whether or not their parents choose
to divorce. Moreover, parents in general are in a powerful
position to shape the conditions of their children’s
everyday lives, having at their disposal considerably more
social and economic resources. However, within their day to
day lives children have considerable scope for influencing
and impacting upon those around them and are faced with a
range of situations and choices about which they make decisions.
It is in this sense that we have regarded children as social
and moral actors and have investigated the ways in which they
are active participants in the family. In particular we have
focused on how children re-negotiate their relationships with
their parents after divorce and respond to new family members
such as new partners and any new siblings. In some cases such
negotiations are conducted openly and we have considered these
in the context of the democratisation of family life and children’s
‘citizenship’ within the family. In other cases
children may choose (or be restricted to) more surreptitious
means, or may indeed opt to do nothing. We go on to consider
how children manage the demands on their time and space created
by moving between two households and whether they experience
tensions between spending time with parents and engaging in
a social life outside the family.
• to offer to policy makers an alternative way of thinking
about children after divorce which may supplement the dominant
concern with long-term outcomes and welfare.
Children have tended to be the ‘intellectual
property’ of psychologists and social work theorists.
The impact of this has been to discursively construct children
within child developmental and welfarist frames of reference
and, in terms of divorce, has led to an emphasis on the potential
harms which a parental separation can have for children both
in the short and longer term. While not wanting to deny that
a divorce can be extremely upsetting for all concerned, or
that adjusting to parental separation can be difficult for
children, we have wanted to suspend the notion of ‘harm’
in order to move beyond an exploration of the ways in which
adults might ‘protect’ children from adverse outcomes.
Instead, through our focus on children as social agents, we
have wanted to examine how children rise to the demands of
their new lives. Moreover, in challenging ideas about the
superiority of the nuclear family and by drawing on the children’s
evaluations of their family lives and personal well-being,
we have raised questions about the association sometimes drawn
between children’s welfare and the structure of their
family. In so-doing, we have hoped to offer policy makers
a sociological framework within which to understand contemporary
changes in family life and childhood experiences which will
supplement the dominant welfarist perspective which pertains
in the field of family law.
We followed the methods specified in the original proposal.
As indicated in section 8 of the report which follows, we
experienced some difficulty recruiting the study sample, in
that the response to our advertisements for research participants
was slower than we had anticipated. We had thought that we
would find that where co-parenting arrangements had been agreed,
many parents would see themselves as being in the vanguard
of an innovative approach to caring for children after a divorce,
and would welcome the opportunity to disseminate information
about such arrangements. However, we had underestimated the
burden of anxiety which many separated and divorced parents
carry, and the extent to which they are fearful of having
harmed their children through their divorce, even where the
children themselves appear well-adjusted and happy. We found
that we often had to work as hard to reassure parents that
it was not our intention to be judgmental about their decisions
and parenting practices as we did to allay their concerns
about research participation being distressing to the children
themselves. In some cases, however, parents who believed their
children had found it difficult to adjust to the separation
saw research participation as a constructive means of enabling
the children to express some of their difficulties and concerns
to a neutral but concerned third party. This was particularly
helpful in ensuring that we secured a balanced sample.
We achieved our eventual sample through persistence;
we placed regular advertisements in a range of publications
and venues; publicised the research in the local media; and
additionally sought the assistance of the Family Court Welfare
Service and Family Mediation. By these means we achieved a
small but steady flow of volunteers to the study. Moreover,
the support we received from practitioners working in the
field of family law helped to ensure that research participants
included children from families where the divorce had been
acrimonious and co-parenting adopted less as an arrangement
of choice than a means of resolving a protracted dispute over
In interviewing the children we followed the
methods specified in the original proposal. The interviews
themselves were conversational and topics were explored in
an open ended manner, depending on their salience to the particular
child. Drawing was used extensively, as this provided a relaxed
(and sometimes humorous) way of opening the interview. Additionally
it enabled children to take early charge of the discussion
through their decisions about who and what should be included
in or excluded from their depiction of their family; provided
valuable information about potentially sensitive areas; and
gave helpful pointers to how the child’s experiences
might be explored. Activity sheets, mapping the children’s
relationships and their day-to-lives in the two households,
were used as a means of introducing variety into the interview
and lessening the intensity of one-to-one discussion, while
also generating useful data in themselves. Amongst the most
valuable tools which we identified, however, were vignettes.
We used these to explore the ethical frameworks the children
employ to resolve the sorts of everyday dilemma which children
of divorced parents can face, such as the competing demands
of spending time with parents and with friends. The children
responded to the vignettes with enthusiasm (several were disappointed
at being asked their views on ‘only’ three and
asked if we had more) and demonstrated clearly how they use
their personal experiences to inform the values to which they
In almost all cases the children chose to speak
to the interviewer alone. However, two children invited a
friend to be present during their interview; a 13 year old
boy asked to be interviewed with his 19 year old sister; and
an interview with a four year old girl was facilitated by
her father. The interviews have been transcribed in full
Our policy of engaging in ethical research means that we wanted
to create an environment in which children felt at ease and
able to contribute fully in interviews. We therefore gave
priority to obtaining children’s own informed consent
to research participation, and to ensuring that they were
confident that whatever they told us was treated as confidential.
We produced information leaflets outlining the focus of the
study and what participation would involve, which children
had an opportunity to read before deciding whether or not
to proceed. Additionally, where they expressed an interest
in the study, having seen the leaflet, they were given an
opportunity to meet the interviewer and ask questions about
the study before deciding whether to go any further. We believe
that the richness of the data which we have been able to collect
is in part due to the fact that the children knew what to
expect from the interview; had been able to think about what
they wanted to say; and felt in control of the interview process
In the course of the study we conducted interviews with 65
children (from 47 families), who move routinely between their
parents’ households (or who have done so in the past).
There are more girls (39) than boys (26) in the sample, but
the children are almost equally divided between those aged
10 years and under (32) and those aged 11 years and above
(33). The youngest child interviewed was aged just 4 years
at the time of interview and the oldest 17 years.
The children come from a range of backgrounds
and varying economic circumstances although the sample is
skewed towards children from the middle classes, with approximately
a quarter of the children interviewed being from the ‘traditional’
working class. In some cases we found it difficult to apply
conventional class categorisations as a significant proportion
of the ‘middle-class’ parents are culturally rich
(having the benefit of higher education) but materially poor,
and some have adopted ‘alternative’ lifestyles.
There are no ethnic minority children in the sample but five
children (from three families) are of mixed race. The length
of time during which the co-parented children have been moving
between two households ranges from one to 10 years. Their
parents are almost equally divided between those who have
repartnered and those who remain single. Similarly, they divide
between those who have developed a friendly and supportive
post-divorce relationship (approximately 25 percent), those
between whom there is hostility and conflict (25 percent),
and those who co-operate to the extent of sharing the care
of the children but otherwise have no or minimal contact with
each other (approximately 50 per cent).
As outlined in the original proposal, we based
our analysis of the children’s interviews on the grounded
theory approach, immersing ourselves in the data and moving
critically between our theoretical conceptualisations of childhood
and children’s agency and the content of the interviews.
Most of the children felt it is important to them to have
both parents actively involved in their lives as parents,
that is, that they should continue to be involved in such
basic familial practices as sharing meals with the children,
ensuring that they are up, washed and dressed in time for
school; and engaging with them in discussions and activities
around their interests, concerns and friendships. They therefore
for the most part endorsed the concept of co-parenting after
a divorce and expressed a preference for this as opposed to
a residence/contact arrangement, for example, which they felt
thought would invariably erode their relationship with the
The emphasis which they placed on the continuation
of a ‘real’ relationship with both parents modified
the demands which some saw as associated with moving between
households. For children co-parented from an early age, moving
from one parental establishment to another had become routine;
indeed, some saw this as preferable to living in one household
and appeared to be thriving on the variety which it introduces
into their lives. These children often saw their homes as
complementary; in one, for example, the child might have to
‘share’ their parent with a new partner and new
siblings, whereas in the other the parent might live alone
and have only the one child. In this case the individual space
and attention available in the solo parent household tended
to be valued as offering a respite from the noise and activity
of the multi-person home, while the latter was seen as off-setting
the loneliness associated with having no siblings to play
However, although the children mostly accommodated
to their new family arrangements and even flourished under
them, they could still encounter problems. For some there
was a particular problem associated with ‘transitions’
from one household to the other. These could be practical
such as having to pack clothing and/or school books every
week and meant that the children had to develop skills in
personal organisation. As one sixteen year old said, ‘It’s
like putting your life into a couple of carrier bags every
week.’ Many children spoke of the frustration of discovering
that a book needed for their homework was missing, or the
problem of being refused permission to take things bought
by one parent to the other parent’s house. Other children
found change-overs emotionally demanding as they had to detach
from one parent and re-bond with the other. Here, the amount
of time in each home could be especially important. For some
very young children, a week was simply too long to be away
from a parent. Equally, too short a time in each home (some
children moved on a daily basis) could be too unsettling.
While some parents were supportive of each other’s
parenting, or co-operated in maintaining the co-parenting
arrangement while minimising contact between themselves, others
remained locked in hostility. This could create difficulties
for the children, particularly if they themselves were a focus
of conflict or were subject to conflicting loyalties. However,
some children felt strongly that parental conflict should
not be a barrier to co-parenting, particularly where parents
are able to resist the temptation to draw the children into
their disputes. The children who were least happy with co-parenting
were those who felt they could not talk to their parents about
the arrangements and who had no influence over how their time
was divided between their two homes.
Although co-parenting means that children are able to continue
to engage with both their mother and father in the day to
day practices which make up the parent-child relationship,
these relationships are nevertheless altered by the restructuring
of their family, and have to be re-negotiated. The children’s
expectations of their parents have to be revised and they
may see them behaving in unaccustomed ways, perhaps distressed
or lonely, or perhaps relating to a new sexual partner, or
step-parenting ‘strange’ children.
For most of the children in our sample, co-parenting
provides clear messages about the importance of their place
in their parents’ lives and the strength of their parents’
love and commitment. The children correspondingly often expressed
a renewed sense of attachment to and esteem for their parents.
Asked if his relationship with his father had changed at all,
a 12 year old boy said, ‘No, it’s just the same.
... Sort of, like, appreciate him more. Sort of think about
it more. Whereas before I just like took it for granted that
he was there’. These children were concerned to give
time to their relationships with their parents and would sometimes
forgo outside activities or contact with friends in order
to do so. While younger children tended not to see this as
a problem, some older children experienced a tension between
wanting to see parents and wanting to see friends, especially
if a parent had not re-partnered and was thought by the child
to be lonely.
The experience of family re-structuring and
associated process of re-evaluating family relationships means
that children can experience themselves as persons with their
own needs and opinions, and as having choices about their
involvement with other family members. It is clear from the
children’s accounts that their commitment to their parents
is not given unconditionally and that divorce opens parents
up to re-appraisal by their offspring. Where a parent fails
to establish him or herself as reliable and caring, is oppressive
in their behaviour, or pays little attention to the child’s
wishes and views, s/he risks alienating the child. Some children
had reached the conclusion that they do not like or respect
one parent very much. In these cases they had exercised the
sense of choice which they feel they now have about their
family ties, and reduced or even severed contact.
The increase in the number of children experiencing their
parents’ divorce means that the stigma once associated
with family breakdown is disappearing. The children in our
study almost invariably saw their family as ‘normal’
once they had got over the initial disruption of the separation,
and a number questioned the dominance of normative concepts
of the nuclear family. A 14 year old who described her family
as being ‘different’ nevertheless continued, ‘but
I don’t mind that because who says what a family should
The children defined their families in terms
of relationships and practices rather than formal structures.
This is not to say that they did not recognise blood or legal
ties. They clearly distinguished, for example, between what
they called their ‘real’ parents and parents’
new partners, and between new spouses and co-habitees. However,
these formal ties were defined by them as being of less importance
than the quality of the relationships between family members.
So, as indicated above, where a parent failed over a long
period to act as a parent ‘should’, the child
might decide to limit or break off contact. This evidence
of children’s autonomy suggests there may be a shift
in kinship practices. The child-parent relationship is usually
thought of as representing a quintessentially enduring tie.
It is seen as an exception to the highly individualised and
affective nature of kinship in the UK, where commitment to
kin is based more on the degree of liking and affection between
family members than the positional relationships which exist
between them. The experience of divorce seems, however, to
be making children aware that family relationships are, in
a fundamental sense, contingent, and that they require work
and commitment if they are to have meaning.
During the course of the study, through our exploration of
children’s views on how the everyday problems and issues
associated with family life after a divorce can be managed,
we developed an interest in children’s moral reasoning.
We decided to investigate the extent to which children are
moral agents in family life and have uncovered a wealth of
information about how they seek to be fair to their parents,
actively care for their parents, and wish to be treated themselves.
We have found that in thinking about how families
should ‘work’ the children subscribe to a broad
set of principles which we define as involving an ethic of
fairness, an ethic of care and an ethic of respect.
Insofar as co-parenting is, at its best, concerned
with parents working together to share the care of their children,
it is perhaps unsurprising that the children should identify
fairness as one of the most important values underpinning
family life. What is interesting, however, is the extent to
which children see this as applying to their own involvement
with other family members rather than simply representing
how they themselves should be treated. So, the children in
our sample were concerned to ensure that their parents feel
they are treated equally by the child and neither has more
of the child’s time, presence and affection than the
other. In practice this means that children thought hard about
what they should do if, for example, alterations in their
schedule meant them temporarily spending more time with one
parent than the other.
The way in which the children approached the
question of what constitutes fair treatment involved the articulation
of a set of principles which we term an ethic of care. The
children displayed considerable sensitivity towards their
parents’ wishes and needs, and were aware of their parents
as separate persons with their own aspirations and desires.
So, while the children might resent the presence of a parent’s
new partner from their own perspective they might simultaneously
acknowledge the benefits which the relationship had brought
to their parent. Or they might simply make the tea for a parent
who was tired, or ‘have a nice conversation’ if
their parent seemed sad or lonely. The construction of children
as dependants means that their participation as agents in
family life is often invisible to adults. There is no word
equivalent to that of ‘parenting’ which captures
the sense in which children ‘take care’ of their
parents and we ourselves are still searching for a term to
If children saw themselves as having a role
in caring for other family members and ensuring that others
are treated fairly, they also expected such treatment in return.
They therefore thought parents should take their wishes and
feelings into account when making decisions which would affect
them. Thinking in terms of how this principle of respect might
be put into practice within the divorce process the children
displayed an intense awareness of the dilemma of ‘choosing’
between parents. However, this did not mean they wanted to
avoid involvement in the decision making process. While they
did not want to choose they did want to participate and emphasised
the value of a negotiated outcome in family matters .
Articles in practitioner journals
Carol Smart (1998): ‘Children Talk Back: Children’s
Views on Family Life after Divorce’, Family Mediation,
Carol Smart (1999): ‘Divorce and Changing
Family Practices’, The UK College of Family Mediators
Carol Smart: ‘Divorce and Changing Family
Life’, One Plus One Bulletin, February 1999.
Carol Smart: ‘Children and Divorce’,
Solicitors’ Family Law Association Review, February
Bren Neale, Amanda Wade and Carol Smart: ‘“I just
get on with it”. Children’s Experiences of Family
Life following Separation and Divorce’. Centre for Research
on Family, Kinship & Childhood, Working Paper No. 1: University
Bren Neale and Carol Smart: Agents or Dependants?:
Struggling to Listen to Children in Family Law and Family
Research. Centre for Research on Family, Kinship & Childhood,
Working Paper No. 3: University of Leeds.
Carol Smart, Bren Neale and Amanda Wade: Divorce
and Changing Family Practices. Centre for Research on Family,
Kinship & Childhood, Working Paper No. 11: University
Bren Neale, Amanda Wade and Carol Smart: “I just get
on with it”: Children’s experiences of family
life following parental separation or divorce’. Socio-Legal
Studies annual conference, Manchester Metropolitan University,
15-17 April. 1998.
Bren Neale: ‘Agents or Dependants?: Struggling
to Listen to Children in Family Law and Family Research’.
Fourteenth World Congress of Sociology, 26 July - 1 August
1998, Montreal, Canada.
Amanda Wade: ‘Children and Co-Parenting
after Divorce’. Joint Meeting of British and Norwegian
Childhood Researchers, 30-31 October 1998, the Copthorne Hotel,
Amanda Wade: ‘New Childhoods? Children
and Co-Parenting after Divorce’. Paper given at New
Research: Challenges for Practice, a conference organised
by Family Mediation (Scotland) and held at the Scottish Office,
Edinburgh, 16 November, 1998.
Carol Smart: ‘Children Talk Back: Children’s
Views on Family Life after Divorce’. Lucy Faithfull
Memorial Lecture given at the Annual General Meeting of National
Family Mediation, 26 November 1998.
Carol Smart: ‘Children and Divorce’,
ESRC Programme Users Conference, Westminster, London, 23 February
Bren Neale: ‘Dialogues with Children:
Participation and Choice in Family Decision Making’.
Socio-Legal Studies annual conference, University of Loughborough,
6-8 April 1999.
Amanda Wade: ‘Experiencing Co-Parenting’.
Socio-Legal Studies annual conference, University of Loughborough,
6-8 April. 1999.
Carol Smart: ‘Children’s Perspectives
on Post-Divorce Family Life’. Greater Manchester Family
Mediation Service AGM, 29 April 1999.
Bren Neale: ‘Children’s Citizenship’.
Rethinking Citizenship: An International Conference, University
of Leeds, June 1999.
Amanda Wade: ‘Altered Spaces: Family transitions
as a site of learning’. Paper given at Sites of Learning:
An International Conference on Childhood, the University of
Hull, 14-16 September 1999.
Carol Smart: ‘Stories of Family Life:
Change v Instability’. Domestic Partnership Conference,
Queens University, Kingston, Canada, 21-23 October 1999.
Carol Smart: ‘Post-Divorce Childhood: New Identities
for Children’, University of Durham, 10 February 1999.
Bren Neale and Amanda Wade: ‘Children’s Experiences
of Family Life following Parental Separation and Divorce’.
Seminar paper given at the Centre for Research on Family,
Kinship & Childhood, University of Leeds, 13 May 1998.
Carol Smart: ‘Divorce and Changing Family
Practices’. Paper presented at the ESRC seminar series
‘Post-modern Kinship’, the University of Leeds,
6 November 1998.
Carol Smart: ‘Post-Divorce Childhoods:
Perspectives from Children’. Seminar paper given at
the Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the
Law, University of Liverpool, 12 November 1998.
Carol Smart: ‘Children and Divorce’.
Seminar paper given to the North Eastern Branch of the Family
Law Association and the Solicitors’ Family Law Association,
13 November 1998.
Bren Neale: ‘What do Children Value about
Family Life?’. Paper given at the National Stepfamily
Association Annual Research Seminar, London, January 1999.
Bren Neale: ‘Listening to Children in
Family Law and Family Research’. Seminar paper given
at the University of Bradford, March 1999.
Amanda Wade: ‘Post-Divorce Contact’.
Paper given on 23 April 1999 at a seminar on post-adoption/post-divorce
contact organised by the West Yorkshire Family Court Forum.
Bren Neale: ‘Post-Divorce Family Life:
Children’s perspectives’. Seminar paper given
at the University of Newcastle-on-Tyne, May 1999.
Bren Neale: ‘Children, Families and Caring’.
Paper given at a CRFKC day conference, University of Leeds,
Carol Smart: ‘Objects of Concern’. Child and Family
Law Quarterly Annual Seminar, All Soul’s College, Oxford,
2 July 1999.
Amanda Wade: ‘Ascertaining children’s views’.
Paper given at the National Family Mediation: National Residential
Training Weekend, 27 March 1999, University of Nottingham.
Amanda Wade: ‘Communicating with children’.
Talk and workshop given at “So what is a good report?”,
a training event organised by the North Eastern Region Family
Court Welfare Service, and held at the University College
of St. John, York, on 12 July 1999.
We plan to deposit our interview data with the Data archive.
Our interview transcripts have been cleaned, ready for depositing,
but background information (to provide an accessible context
to the interviews for other researchers) still has to be finalised.
We expect this work to be completed very shortly.
The study has proved to be extremely timely. Although implementation
of Part 2 of the Family Law Act has been delayed, the question
of whether and how children should participate in the divorce
process remains a central concern. Views differ on whether
children should be ‘protected’ from participation
in discussions about their future care (both inside the family
and as a part of the legal process) or, alternatively, whether
they value their wishes and views being sought and find the
process of participation especially helpful at times of family
change. Debate on these issues is made more difficult by the
dearth of information from children themselves about their
experiences of parental separation and divorce; for example,
Rogers and Pryor recently produced a comprehensive review
of over 200 research reports and papers on children and divorce,
but were able to include less than 20 publications which had
directly elicited children’s views. We have therefore
found that policy makers and practitioners working in the
field of family law have shown a keen interest in our findings
on children’s participation, as well as the specific
issue of co-parenting which, again, is a subject of considerable
debate with regard to its implications for children’s
well-being. This level of interest is reflected in the number
of talks and presentations which members of the research team
have been invited to give and our involvement in a number
of associated activities. These include the compilation of
a summary of current research for a seminar organised by the
Rowntree Foundation on Listening to Children’s Views
and Representing their Best Interests on 5 July 1999 (the
report of which is to be considered by the Lord Chancellor’s
Advisory Board on Family Law) and participation in a working
group convened by NCVCCO and invited by the Lord Chancellor’s
Department to develop leaflets for children as part of the
information materials relating to the Family Law Act (March
1999 and on-going).
We have secured funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
for a further study which will focus on children aged between
six and ten years. We propose to investigate their perceptions
of family change and explore their views on the information
and support which they believe is of most benefit at such
times. We are also considering a follow-up of the children
who took part in the present study.