No clear victor in nuclear debate

March 23, 2001

Is the traditional family really the gold standard and are more unconventional family structures - same-sex couples and one-parent families - to blame for children's psychological problems? In this challenging book, Susan Golombok responds to the many questions that she has been asked on parenting. The book presents current research findings on the effects of raising children in different types of family structure and examines which aspects of family relationships have a positive or negative impact on children's development: what really counts?

The book is divided into two parts. Part one is a well-written and comprehensive account of research into the effect of several types of non-traditional families on children's social, emotional and cognitive development. The potential problems associated with being raised in a non-traditional family vary from family to family. Each of four different family types is given its own chapter so that the distinct problems of each are fully acknowledged. Even within a particular type of family, for example one in which one or both of the parents are not genetically related to their child, there are differing risk factors across families. Adopted children may be affected by feelings of loss of a parent or the transition to a new family and may experience behavioural problems. By contrast, children conceived by gamete donation may be well adjusted in childhood but have to deal with the secrecy surrounding their conception when they grow older. Single-parent families are considered along with same-sex parenting and the role of fathers in children's development.

This survey, which is enlivened with quotes from real families, reveals that for all these families, the structure of the family is at most an indirect cause of a child's problems. In particular, family structure only impacts negatively on a child's development if it has a detrimental effect on the relationships within the family or on processes that are important for healthy psychological development such as secure attachment and parental wellbeing.

In part two, Golombok focuses on the psychological processes that occur within the family and its relationship with the wider social environment, relating their differential effects to the family structures that are outlined in part one. She examines the core processes of attachment, heritability and the nature-nurture debate, as well as relationships within the family and with the wider social world. Here, the reader learns more about which aspects of the dynamics of parent-child relationships and family life can affect a child's development positively and adversely.

The rigour with which Golombok discusses the processes that might be compromised in non-traditional family structures is commendable. She questions what seem to be intuitive conclusions. For example, the reader may believe that the link between parental conflict and behavioural problems in children is obvious, but Golombok highlights the complexities of such a link. Of course, such conflict might cause behavioural problems in children but there might also be something about the temperament or behaviour of the child that causes the parents' stress and that exacerbates their relationship difficulties. In addition, poverty or lack of social support might be the root cause of both parental conflict and the child's behaviour, with the child's experience of the conflict playing little part in behavioural outcomes.

Parenting is a thoughtful and well-argued introduction for students and those new to this field. Many themes pertinent to developmental psychology as a whole are explored, such as the role of indirect effects on development and the notion of a child as an active participant in the developmental process. This book will be useful to those contemplating a non-traditional route to parenthood and for those who work with families. It goes beyond the myths that abound about the effects of family structure on development and addresses the real concerns of parenting. That is, what truly matters is not who is parenting but how they are parenting and how best they can be supported in this most demanding of tasks.

Sarah Paterson is postdoctoral research fellow, Neurocognitive Development Unit, Institute of Child Health, University of London.

Parenting: What Really Counts?

Author - Susan Golombok
ISBN - 0 415 216 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £12.99
Pages - 124

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