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The Parents Promise

What is the Parents Promise?

International launch: May 2021

Launched in 2021 by an alliance of child-focused organisations including Two Wishes, the Parents Promise is a written or spoken commitment made by parents, to each of their children, that they will always do their best to look after each child. It’s a commitment to make sure that, whatever happens in their own relationship, they will always make sure their children are free to maintain and develop the best possible relationship with each of them, and with their entire, extended family.

Why do we need the Parents Promise?

As adults, we make all sorts of commitments … to pay ten quid a month to Netflix to watch movies, to buy a home with our partner so we’ve a comfortable place to live, and, for some of us, to get married. These commitments are generally marked by signed contracts or ceremonies.

But, when it comes to one of the most important things in the lives of parents – the birth of their child – there is no ceremony and no agreed contract that parents make with each other. 

Here, as part of the Positive Parenting Alliance, we don’t think that’s how it should be – and we’d like to change how we think about such a life-changing, and life-giving, event.

Just as marriage vows can be symbolic of a commitment made by partners to stay with one another, so the Parents Promise is symbolic of a joint commitment by parents to their children. It’s a promise that every child will always have a family.

Why now?

We’ve just had a really tough year. All of us. But, especially, families. 2020 has tested family relationships to the limit and 2021 will continue to do so. For some, their families will have grown stronger from these tests. But, for many, exceptional emotional and financial pressures have precipitated a breakdown in family relationships.

With so many relationships not lasting, and 20-40% of children in the UK and many countries experiencing the break-up of their parents’ relationship, it’s important – now more than ever – that we re-affirm – to our children and to ourselves – that a child’s relationship with each parent and, indeed, with all who love and care for that child, is important. It’s “for life”.

The long-term wellbeing of all children depends, most importantly, on them being able to maintain and develop positive relationships with all who love and care for them.

Are we wanting more families to stay together?

We don’t have a view on whether any particular family should stay together or not. Parents do split up. Every day. That’s not going to change.

But what we do know, from research around the globe and from everyone’s personal experience, is that growing up in a healthy, loving family is one of the most important things for a child. 

If a child’s parents do decide, for whatever reason, to split up, it’s so important for that child to know, straight away, that the loving, positive relationships they’ve know up until then, will continue. For children, the uncertainty that comes with their parents split can, on its own, be devastating and traumatic. The loss of a parent, or even half of a family, that so often follows parental break-ups is even worse: it’s one of the greatest traumas that a child can experience – and its lifelong impact on the health of a child is now frighteningly well documented.

What impact does family separation have on a child? 

Family separation or divorce obviously has an impact on every child that experiences it. For many, it’s the most significant event in their entire childhood or, for some, their entire lives. But, is it actually harmful?

We’re only now, in the 21st century, starting to see the results of scientific research – with such large sample sizes that the data can be trusted and analysed in great detail – that’s showing us the true connection between family breakdown and the health of children that experience it. The results should concern everyone. 

Whether you look at studies like the USA’s “Adverse Childhood Experiences” study or the UK’s Millennium Cohort studies, family separation and divorce is one of the leading drivers of increased lifetime health risks for children exposed to it, as well as poorer mental health, including self-harming behaviour and even suicide among teenagers. 

In fact, the ages at which children and young people are turning up in emergency wards around the world has been getting lower, this century, from around 17, typically, down to children as young as 11 or 12. Family and relationship breakdown is not the only factor, but it’s one of the most significant.

Surely, it’s sometimes for the best?

Sometimes, when parents split up and move apart, it can be the best outcome for a child: avoiding heated arguments or even escaping volatile parents or family violence. 

For the overwhelming majority of children, however, they do best when they can maintain and develop the relationships they’ve grown up with. Cutting those off suddenly, as often happens with a divorce, is particularly damaging to a child.

The Parents Promise aims to address this, both within individual families and across the whole of our society, by helping change how we think about the whole subject of family separation and divorce.

By encouraging parents to think early about what might happen to their children – a bit like we do when writing a Will – we can help prevent some of the worst outcomes of acrimonious separations down the track.

And by starting a national conversation, we get everyone to start thinking differently about divorce and separation. It really shouldn’t be thought of as a legal issue, involving courts. It should be primarily about what’s best for the long-term wellbeing of children … and that’s not a legal issue, it’s a health issue.

In fact, at the moment, it’s a public health crisis. One that the Parents Promise aims to contribute to changing.

What happens if one parent turns bad?

Firstly, we hope that by getting couples to think early on about the impact and importance of their behaviour on their children, the Parents Promise may contribute to reducing the likelihood that children will be harmed if their parents start having problems. It’s a form of early intervention, in some ways: helping parents think about how they can be the best possible parents to their children whatever may happen in the future.

But, the wellbeing of children is paramount so if, at any time, a parent becomes any sort of danger to a child, we need urgently to address the behaviour of that parent and make sure no child is exposed to it. Again, if we start identifying and addressing potential problems much earlier than we often do today – instead of waiting until a family separates or some form of abuse is taking place – some of the serious problems we see today can be avoided before they even start.

The Parents Promise will contribute to the education and understanding that all parents will have about bringing up children and, along with a new focus on greater, accessible support for all families and much earlier interventions where needed, can help change the face of family separation forever.