Stable, committed, and loving

In this second blog I continue to reflect on the Summit held to discuss the adoption of children in care at the Coram Museum in March 2013.  I reflect on Michael Rutter’s summary research on a healthy home environment and continue to ruminate on the value of the concept of ‘permanency.’

Stable, committed and loving

1) Four Dimensions of a Healthy Home Life

A focal point of the Summit was a summary of research about family environments that promote healthy child development. It was provided by Michael Rutter. He said there were four priorities, and in the classic style of the Great Man, he proceeded to number them, firstly, secondly, and so on.

Priority one is to avoid physical and sexual abuse. This is not about physical punishment. It too should be avoided but, as Sara Jaffee’s research shows, it is the effects of maltreatment that matter.

Priority Two is the provision of stable, committed, loving relationships. This is not the same as permanency -indeed in the right circumstances stable, committed, loving relationships encourage the child’s independence of thought and action and, in one sense of the word, a deal of impermanency. Nor do stable, committed and loving add up to ‘bonding’, another less than helpful concept. As the Great Man said, a strong relationship is not always a good relationship. Cassidy and Shaver’s chapter in theHandbook of Attachment provides the best source of evidence on these matters.

Stable, committed, loving relationships show up in measures of attachment -the extent to which the child displays a degree of security that is appropriate for it’s development- and sensitive parenting -the degree to which the mother is able to read and respond to what the child needs. But the accuracy with which these measures predict a good upbringing for the child remains limited.

Rutter dropped into this part of his pronouncement one of those pesky, annoying, evidence based, common-sense facts of life: that children can cope with multiple, loving, committed relationships, maybe as many as four or five.

His third priority is the provision of individually varying authoritative parenting. He felt the need to say it so I will follow his lead and stress that authoritative does not mean authoritarian. Children like structure, order and boundaries to push against. There is no single optimal way of achieving this, so forget about that good parenting template. Slightly troubling to me was the observation that what parents do matters as much to children as what we say. And our kids learn not just from us, but from their friends, their friends’ families and from other people they respect.

The final component of a healthy home environment are multiple learning opportunities. As Rutter stressed, this does not mean our current obsession with the three ‘Rs’ but with helping the child to think clearly, and to be eager and open to learning more, and more again, throughout life.

Actually, Rutter had a ‘fifthly’. He usually does. But it didn’t have much to do with the subject. It was a cry of despair from a man, from a group of people around the world, who have spent their lives meticulously, agnostically, studying these matters only to be overlooked by policy makers who see the world in terms of their own experience or doctrine.

Rutter said that social policy should be shaped by research not by ideological concerns. But from the moment he sat down he was lauded and ignored in equal measure. Social policy shaped by research? Come on Mike, be sensible.

2) Application of this evidence

Any summary of research will be challenged, and no doubt there will be some disagreement about Rutter’s four priorities, or some difference in emphasis. At the Summit, for example, Danya Glaser put as much stress on neglect as abuse, whereas Rutter concludes that the evidence on the former is weaker than the latter. These are important quibbles but for now let’s take the four priorities as given. How might we act on this evidence?

In the previous entry I asked the question ‘is there any evidence that permanence -in the sense of staying long in a single family unit- would produce better outcomes for children? I am going to conclude on the basis of what Rutter said, and the mountain of research that underpins his summary, that, in itself, it would not.

What matters is a minimum of maltreatment plus sensitive, authoritative parenting that generates an eager to learn child.

This evidence might be used as a guide for social workers trying to decide if the long term risks to a child’s health and development warrant removal from birth parents for a short, long or indefinite period. But, as Rutter pointed out, even damaging parental behaviour can be improved so any consideration of separation demands an exploration of the parent’s capacity to change.

Thinking about the family environment most conducive to healthy child development also helps, as Danya Glaser suggested, to select, where it is needed, an alternative place for the child to live. Foster parents, short or long-term, adoptive parents and special guardians should never abuse and they should offer their own style of sensitive, authoritative parenting, and their own ways of stimulating an appetite for learning. Of course, substitute parents of all types also have the capacity to change, for good and for ill.

It is sobering to reflect that any assessment of that capacity is made in the context of a hypothetical child who may be placed and not, as with the scrutiny of errant parents, observation of what is currently happening.

I was thinking about all this during the contributions that followed Rutter and Glaser. My mind wandered and I found myself staring hard at a painting by Charles Brooking of a series of boats at sea (A Flagship before the Wind under Easy Sail, with a Cutter, a Ketch and Other Vessels, 1754). I got to thinking that the focus on adoption was like a focus on the mast of one of the ships in the painting, a small, possibly fundamental, but nonetheless minuscule part of the vista.

We know that about five per cent of children are exposed to severe violence in the home, either watching what their parents do to each other or by their parents beating them. Few of these children will go anywhere near a social worker never mind come into public care or get adopted.

Our collective objective is better health and development for children. One mechanism for achieving that is to promote a family environment most likely to deliver those outcomes. One set of interventions focus on that mechanism and provide support for children living at home with their birth families. Another concentrates on providing short separations away from home, almost exclusively for poor families. Another, also reserved for the impoverished, provides a long term supplement or alternative to the family home in foster homes, adoptive families or with special guardians.

As good as we can make it, this last option will only ever be a tiny part of the effort to improve the well-being of our nation’s children.

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