‘I never intended to write,’ says Dr Penelope Leach

Dr Penelope Leach 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, including Babyhood, Children First, and the classic Your Baby & Child: From Birth to Age Five, which has sold over three million copies since 1977.

Professor Penelope Leach CBE graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge, with honours in 1959. After Cambridge, she attended the London School of Economics, where she received her PhD in psychology in 1964 and went on to lecture on child development. Sitting in her Lewes, Sussex, home looking out at the Downs, she tells me over the phone that she hadn’t planned on being a writer…

‘I never intended to write, I was a researcher and working as a research fellow at the London School of Economics. My son, then almost two, got meningitis. I was in the hospital with him for two weeks and then we came home. I had it in my head that I should get back to work as soon as I could, so I did. I left him with the childminder. I shouldn’t have; he was traumatised. I wondered why I was leaving this desperate little boy every day. So I left work.

That’s the period when I spent a lot of time with other mothers. There were many mothers at home in the 60s. Bunches of us would go walking. I had an advantage over them in that I knew a lot about baby development, which they didn’t know. The crucial point was an afternoon when everyone was talking about potty training. Paediatrician Dr Berry Brazelton in the States had just published the first research study on potty training. I knew this and they didn’t, because it hadn’t come out in any parent-friendly form.

I decided I would take this opportunity to write a book about the important developments of the first two years called Babyhood, specifically not an advice book. In a comic twist, a lot of people wrote saying how lovely it was that I had written a book not telling people what to do, but asking what they could do about their child’s bed wetting. It was clear that people were interested in these developmental topics, but couldn’t apply the data to their own [child] without some help. That’s why when [a publisher] approached me to write Baby and Child, I said I would.’

A career in writing
‘For me, [starting a career in writing] was a question of timing. It wasn’t an intended career path. I was lucky. Baby and Child was an enormous success, and that’s what gave me the possibility of other writing for magazines and journals. Later, I ran research studies and a big childcare study. What made the difference financially was television when we made three seasons of a show called ‘Your Baby and Child with Penelope Leach’. That enabled me to write things I didn’t think would be financial successes, like Children First, which I think is the best book I ever wrote.

Writing never felt like a business to me. Baby and Child was more than a fulltime job for several years. I was working two hours one week and eighty the next. While my children were school age, I didn’t spend more than 50% time writing, once they were at university it was my primary focus. It still largely is, although I don’t work fulltime by any means. When the children were young I used to work at night, until two or three in the morning.’

Based on the 80s, an estimate of Penelope’s average income from her writing is:

Paid vs unpaid work
‘I think it’s interesting that in the past people like me were more likely to get paid, and paid reasonably, for this kind of work around a book than you are now. Now you need to ask if you’ll be paid, and usually you won’t be, because they don’t have the money.

I think the problem is that organisations are willing to pay those who are famous, but it’s those who are not famous who need the exposure and the money! Sometimes it helps to ask an organisation whether they have a speakers’ budget. If they do, it is fine to accept the appropriate part of it, but if they don’t, you have to decide whether it is worth doing anyway, either to help the organisation or to help your reputation.’

On receiving a CBE
‘It’s a huge honour. What I liked best about it was that the CBE was for services to Education, which seems to be taking parenting seriously, which I quite like.’

Interview by Miriam Foley