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Parenting - Priorities for Investment


This report is an overview of the important issues that have significant impacts on early childhood, and what is being done in Canada to address them.

Clearly, one of the most important issues is whether or not the early years of life are important to later development. This has been the hot topic of many books, articles and conferences over the past five years. While there has been considerable debate, most leading scientists conclude that the early years are vitally important because they lay the groundwork, developmentally, for what comes later throughout child and adulthood. Further, most concur that while nature is important, so is nurture. There is little doubt that the environment provided by parents and other caregivers during pregnancy, infancy and early childhood is crucial to laying a good foundation for later development.

What are the important issues concerning today’s infants and young children? We find there are three: physical health, child maltreatment and cognitive and behavioural vulnerabilities.

There are internationally accepted physical health indicators of a population’s health such as low birthweight, infant mortality, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and teen pregnancy. These indicators are good predictors of children’s future health in a society. Canada has shown steady improvement over the past two decades on most of these indicators to the point where the rates are substantially lower than before, and Canada is among the best performing countries worldwide. Thus, Canada’s efforts in pre- and post-natal health are paying important dividends.

Yet child maltreatment in Canada remains a concern. There are three main drivers of child maltreatment: poverty, parental deviance and lack of knowledge and skills about parenting and child development. Poverty is very difficult to address because there is no broad societal agreement on how to confront it. Deviant parents are similarly tough to tackle, because there are few effective treatment programs for parents with severe, longstanding psychiatric and behavioural abnormalities. However, some child abuse and neglect is the result of parents simply not knowing how children grow and develop, and not knowing how to handle the challenges of parenting. A number of experts concur that broad-based parent education, universally available to parents, could help reduce child abuse for this group of parents.

Of equal concern are recent findings from Canada’s National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth which show 28.6% of Canada’s children from birth to age eleven have cognitive and/or behavioural problems that are serious enough to require interventions or they will be prone to experiencing problems throughout their child and adulthood. These problems are directly related to lack of positive parenting. Both the children’s problems and poor parenting are present in all levels of society, regardless of income, education or occupation. These vulnerabilities are disturbingly high and need to be reduced. This is an area where improved parenting skills could make a difference.

What are the important issues facing today’s parents of young children? Today’s parents of young children are substantially different than the parents of yesteryear. They are increasingly delaying childbirth (often, until well into their thirties), increasingly dual-income (71 percent at the birth of their first child), and their marriages/living arrangements are increasingly unstable (about 25 percent of children's parents will separate before their sixth birthday).

An examination of psychographic indicators shows that parents of young children also experience very high rates of depression, poor family functioning, disagreements about with their spouse about how to parent and parents are exceedingly crunched for time. Invest in Kids’ National Survey of Parents of Young Children indicates that despite the fact that parents clearly think parenting is the most important thing they do, and despite wanting to and trying to learn how to parent, parents don’t know much about how children grow and develop, and they are not confident in their ability to know how to parent. Parents are especially unsure about how to promote social, emotional and intellectual development, the very areas where as parents they think they have the most influence.

This lack of knowledge and confidence is not confined to certain subgroups of parents. Contrary to popular opinion, mothers do not know more or feel more confident than fathers; parents with high income and education do not know more than parents with low income and education; experienced parents do not know more or feel more confidant than inexperienced, and stay-at-home mothers do not know more or feel more confident than working mothers.

The majority of parents tried to learn about parenthood before the birth of their first child, but their sources of education were limited in important ways. Thus, many parents are left feeling a lack of support in their parenting role, both at the personal level of practical and emotional support, and at the larger societal level, where the majority do not feel Canada values its young children.

How is parent education delivered currently in Canada? The main sources include high school family life and parenting courses, prenatal classes, community-based parenting programs, television, internet, telephone information lines, physicians, books and magazines. The overall result is a patchwork of services and supports which are mainly purveyors of information, not genuine education. They are often targeted to “high risk” parents, leaving the majority of ordinary parents with normal babies without formal supports or resources. And parent education programs are largely unevaluated, so we know little about whom they reach and whether they are effective.

There are a number of new primarily government-funded research centres that focus on early child development, and a broader set of research advocacy groups that generate research findings to assist policymakers and service providers. However, these organizations lack the funding and/or the mandate to disseminate their knowledge directly to parents, and are often focused on “high risk” families.

CONCLUSIONS: High quality parenting is pivotal to healthy social, emotional and intellectual development. In Canada we provide woefully few opportunities for parents to really learn about parenting and child development. Even worse, we have not created an environment that is conducive to enhancing parenting skills.

Imaginative and thoughtful efforts are greatly needed:

  • To reach out to all parents.
  • To educate all parents about child development and parenting in meaningful and useful ways.
  • To recognize the emotional experiences and stresses inherent in modern parenting.
  • To support on all levels, the important responsibilities parents of young children have undertaken -- to raise healthy and adjusted children, who will grow to be the next generation of healthy and adjusted adults and parents.

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