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The WD Interview – Dr. Penelope Leach, Author and Developmental Child Psychologist

February 6th, 2009 · No Comments · Education, The WD Interview



Penelope Leach, Ph.D., is one of the world’s most respected developmental child psychologists. Leach is most widely known for her best-selling books on child development and parenting. They include “Your Baby & Child: From Birth to Age Five” and “Your Growing Child: From Babyhood Through Adolescence” and “The New Your Baby and Child” published by Knopf. Leach lives and works in London. 


What makes a ‘successful parent’?

A large dose of luck: getting the kind of baby whose temperament fits in with your personality. Of course, this is not really luck, it is genetic, but from the point of view of the parent, it is really luck. If you have one of those very jumpy, ‘over reactive to stimuli’ newborns and you are a get up and go kind of couple who straps the baby on and gets on with your skiing holiday – then reacting to that baby’s particular needs is going to be much harder for you than it would be for a much quieter and less physically active couple. For a particular kind of mother this kind of baby might be a satisfactory challenge – luck is a starting point that we don’t really think about nearly enough. It is an important point because it takes a little of the guilt curse off people.


Are there any golden rules for success?

Research on young infants over the last ten years – whatever the overall topic – shows that sensitivity of response matters most. Make yourself the kind of parent that will take the time out to watch, listen, think, and try to react the way the baby requires. I find myself in disagreement with the ‘routine’ school of thought. I do believe children flourish with routine, and you need develop a routine by watching your baby. My fear is that while you are watching a clock or a schedule the one thing you are not watching is the baby.

What can parents do to have a happy baby?

The best way of preventing a baby from crying is to notice what the baby wants or needs before he has to cry.  Parents have to learn their baby. It is not hard to learn what will keep your particular baby calm and what works for your baby. Life is a kind of series of potential fear situations for the baby that parents can and do learn to deal with. That is why babies tend to get happier as they get older.


What’s the best way to deal with toddler tantrums?

By not backing toddlers into corners. That means to be aware of the child’s desire for autonomy; the desire to assert yourself is an absolutely desirable part of development. It is not about your darling child getting all nasty with you, it is a sign that she is growing up and trying out her own personality, partly by bouncing it of yours. Allow the toddler dignity without ever letting get yourself on the other side of the fence. It is so sad when toddlers make parents into toddlers themselves or quarrel with them. We have all been caught out when we are tired. We can have our feelings hurt by a child because after all the child is a person, so of course he can hurt your feelings, but nevertheless in terms of tantrums, you have to stay the parent, you have to stay the grown-up – you don’t have to shout and scream.


How can parents help their child at school?

It depends on the school, the child – I think it very important not to get children into more school than they are ready for too early. Keep your child out of the pushy rat race for as long as you can. If the problem is other children or sociability, it may be a question of youth or practice. We can do a lot more in teaching children directly what behaviour will or won’t stand them in good stead.


What is the best way to discipline a child?

You need to give your child reasons. For examples, by explaining to a child that the reason for lining up for the slide that if everybody lines up everybody will have a go. It sounds so obvious to us, but it isn’t at all to a three or four-year old. Be aware that a lot of socialised behaviour goes against a child’s interest. If your child is not going to snatch the last bun on the table, it won’t get it. We need to be quick to praise, to point out we can divide the bun etc. Do not take it as granted that all rules are understood. Being good doesn’t always fit the child’s best interest.


How can you boost a parent’s confidence? Are modern parents too tough on themselves?

Parents are always too tough on themselves. I am not even sure that being tough on ourselves has changed that much. In many ways, being a parent is a lot more difficult than it was. There are tremendous time and economic pressures. The way to boost confidence is to help parents to realize that whatever their version is of ‘good enough’ they are central to their children’s life. The conviction that you love your child, your child loves you, and therefore that the best you can do is the best he can have is very important. But the truth is, if I really knew the answer how we can boost parent’s confidence, I would be out there making a million. I don’t think there is a single answer. Having fun is a big part of it.


Should you use different techniques for boys and girls?

They are very different. But whether a boy and girl are by definition more different than two very different boys is a moot point. I think it’s a great mistake to expect them to be the same, and it’s just as great a mistake to worry because they are not. We expect boys to sit down for the same amount as girls. We should provide more physical exercise for boys and we would do better. Neuro research shows that there is genuine gender difference, which shows itself in differential development.


How do you measure parenting success?

I don’t. I wouldn’t dream of trying. I think parents are quite capable of judging themselves.


What are the biggest challenges facing parents today? – How can they be solved? 

The challenges are the same as they have always been. Children happen to you in your adult life, so a lot of patterns about people are already set. You have had many experiences yourself as a child and an adolescent and therefore having a child means a break with the past and a reminder of your own past. Children have always had to be fitted in into other aspects of life. There have always been a home/work balance and I don’t honestly think that there is much fun or gain in speculating whether it was better or worse than it has been because people have always done that and it always seems pretty awful at the time. And it always looks as if it was better earlier. Instead of asking how does today compare with yesterday, we should be asking how can we make it better? What do we know about families that we did not know before? Let us look at that and try to do it better.


What is your proudest achievement as a parent?

I have two stunning super two adult children both of who are happy and productive and doing what they want to do and both of who have smashing children – my grandchildren. Sometimes I look at them and think: “Well, I must have done something right.” I don’t go any further than that because I see parenting as facilitation rather than a production.


What are the most common problems or pitfalls?

Do not feel turned against by your children. Thinking that you dislike this child or this child is the cuckoo in the nest of the family – sometimes it’s one particular child of several – will set you off on a road to nowhere. I think, this is perhaps more common that we know. I have met parents who have wished to talk about the fact that they have a child that they never really bonded with. Theses parents are dutiful and caring, but they are aware that there is a lack in the warmth. I think that is a big pitfall.


Can you avoid making mistakes?

It is like all other mistakes in life: you can have a jolly good try. Can you avoid making mistakes in marrying the wrong person? I think we all try and some of us fail more or less at the time. I think in all relationships we have a duty to do the best we can. I am very impatient with people who appear to think that they can bring their children up like a batch of puppies without a great deal of thought. You try your best and you take what you can get.


If you have a difficult child, can you still be a successful parent?

Yes, probably rather more easily. You have got a more obvious job to do.


If you had your chance again would you do anything differently i.e., has your understanding of successful parenting changed over the years?

I am sure I would do lots of things differently. I am not going to tell you what, but mostly the situations where I am very conscious of having broken my own rules. I see myself as a parent who was much more fortunate than skilled. People assume I researched my own children to write my books, but there was a 15 year gap in between.

What single piece of advice would you give to all parents?

Don’t go for the baby if you can possibly think of anything else you’d rather do. If you don’t want anything in your life to change, don’t have a baby.







(This is an abrideged version of an article that first appeared in Junior magazine; Photo credit Joan Adlen)



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