The head of one of Sydney’s top private schools has warned that denying children access to their fathers when the parents’ relationships break down can lead to girls seeking “inappropriate contact” with other males, and boys rejecting their mothers.
In a newsletter to parents, John Collier from St Andrews Cathedral School said he had seen the ramifications of separation for almost 30 years, watching parents become so absorbed with their own battles that they overlooked the impact on their child.
“Presumably subconsciously, [some parents are] prepared to forfeit the interests of the child for the sake of tactical advantage in the ongoing battle with their ex-partner,” said Dr Collier. “When parents are at war with one another, my experience is that the child almost invariably suffers.”
Elisabeth Shaw, NSW chief executive of Relationships Australia, said separation was an “intense, volatile” time, and parents sometimes became so caught up in their pain that they could not see the ramifications for their children.
Ms Shaw said there was evidence that children did better on many measures if their parents’ separation was amicable.
“The suggestion that girls denied their fathers might be drawn to men earlier, I think is a long bow to draw and does buy into stereotypes about girls that I don’t think is very helpful,” she said.
Dr Collier said he has seen parents try to deny access to the other parent without compelling reasons. “My experience is that older teenagers can come to resent this embargo,” he said.
“There is some evidence which suggests that girls growing up denied access to a father who is supportive and safe, will seek this contact inappropriately with other males.
“There is observational evidence that boys denied access to their father (assuming he is prepared to engage positively with the child), suffer from lack of male modelling and mentoring and, in later teenage years, often abandon the mother to seek this relationship.”
When relationships have broken down to the point where parents cannot be in the same room at the school, “this tends to leave the child or children all at sea, with no clear direction”.
Dr Collier said he was not singling out specific parents, or St Andrews parents. “It is general to all schools,” he said. “Some may ask why I dare to make such comments. I dare for the sake of the children, to whose welfare I am professionally committed and bound by my position.
“The point of these remarks is to encourage separated parents to reflect on their relationship with their former partner, in so far as it affects the schooling and nurturing of their child.”
Dr Collier made headlines last year when he called on parents to stop being aggressive and demanding towards students.
As the head of an Anglican school, Dr Collier was also one of the signatories to a letter signed by 34 heads of church schools that argued for the retention of exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act.
Ms Shaw said research did suggest that poisoning a child’s mind against another parent could damage the relationship in the long term. “Once it comes to a child’s attention that negativity is not the whole story, you could lose the relationship over that.”
She suggested parents set up their own chain of communication with schools – such as parent-teacher interviews – if they were uncomfortable with spending time with their former partner at their child’s school.
“Allowing schools to be dragged into parental battles could rob children of the one place they can get a break from family drama,” she said.
If you are experiencing personal difficulties, please contact lifeline on 13 11 14.