British parenting guru Penelope Leach
Alex Gregory
May 14, 2015 6:21 AM EDT

Your new book is called When Parents Part. Why does a child-care expert take on divorce?

We have now reached a point where fewer than half of kids leaving high school will still have their parents living together. If we knew for sure that up to half the nation’s children were going to suffer something damaging, we’d be moving heaven and earth to do something about it. This is a big issue that we just are not taking seriously–because we hate it, it’s horrible.

Are you adamant that parental separation always hurts kids?

Almost always. There are very sad situations where kids are actually glad to see the back of one of the parents, usually when there’s been violence.

Then should parents try to stay together for the kids?

I don’t believe so. I think if people could stay together in reasonable happiness, they probably would. There’s a kind of romantic myth that a baby brings a couple together. Research going back a long way pinpoints the birth of the first child as marriage’s greatest stressor.

You suggest that babies under 2 shouldn’t spend even a night away from the mother. Is that not a little hard on the dad?

What I’m saying is mothers get a biological priority. Attachment starts when babies are still in the womb. If you take a baby of, say, 12 months who has not been cared for by the father and make him spend time with the father without the mother, there’s going to be more stress on the child than we like to think about. Because children don’t remember very well in the first year. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last 10 years, it is how important it is to all children to have a close relationship with the father as well as the mother.

What is the one thing splitting parents should do?

I call it mutual parenting. All that means is to keep separate in your mind your adult relationship from your parenting so that your children can see that you two have separated but nobody has divorced them or is about to.

So conscious uncoupling?

I’ve never been quite sure what conscious uncoupling actually meant. I assume it means separating and thinking about it. But it’s not a phrase that leaps easily to the lips. Sorry if that’s rude.

Parenting is much more intentional than it used to be. Have we gone too far?

I’m sure there are situations where it goes too far. The tiger mom seemed too much–too much focus, too much attention, not enough room and space to grow and be.

At 77, what other trends in modern parenting alarm you?

We are really much too concerned with academics and testing for our 4- and 5-year-olds. We’re cutting off both physical and social development that ought to be leading us at that point. Sitting 4-year-old boys down and expecting them to keep still and listen–it ain’t in their nature. We’d do better with our boys if they were spending more time rushing about, pushing each other and shouting like boys need to do.

Are kids eating too much sugar?

Can I give you a phooey reply? The effect of sugar on children’s behavior is nil. There’s lots of reasons against eating lots of sugar. But your child bouncing off the wall isn’t one of them.

How much do you think your glasses were part of your success?

It would be awful if I had the kind of face that reduced all babies to floods of tears. Babies on the whole love glasses. They love taking them off. I do think they helped in my early career.

–BELINDA LUSCOMBE

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This appears in the May 25, 2015 issue of TIME.

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