Parent-free Nation?

If children are doing poorly—parents need to be part of the solution

In September, Children First Canada, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about children’s welfare and “mobilizing government, lawmakers and influencers to change the status quo” released a report called Raising Canada. Citing an array of data sources, the report gives an overview picture of how children are faring across the country. While some of the stats are important, others are simply too general to draw useful conclusions. Furthermore, what is not in the report is as important as what is. 

The report’s authors believe every child has rights, and every Canadian has a role in fulfilling the rights of children. This is good and true, but it appears to circumvent parents or at very least equalizes their role to that of all Canadian adults. Canadian families face obstacles in raising children, but the report gives no recommendations for improving the situation. This is beyond the scope of their project but at the same time, detracts from the goal of mobilizing change. It also, quite concretely, presents difficulties for readers in knowing what to do instead of simply panicking. 

Some of the statistics are devastating and deserve thoughtful engagement. The tragedy of youth suicide is one of these. The OECD reports that Canada is in the top five countries for the highest teen suicide rates. These devastating numbers are coming out of particular small communities. “Suicide rates are five to seven times higher for First Nation Youth than for non-Aboriginal youth,” the authors write. Suicide rates, of course, vary amongst First Nation communities themselves; some have average suicide rates and others have very high rates. Where they are high, we must both be aware and work toward solutions. 

Some data requires more context. For example, on infant mortality, Canada “ranks 30th of 44 countries” according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The OECD also reports that both the United States and Canada include babies born under 500g, something the majority of countries rarely report because the chance of survival for a baby under 500g is extremely low. This raises our infant mortality rates in contrast with other countries. 

Perhaps the most devastating and horrifying thought to a parent is the fear of a child experiencing physical or sexual abuse. Here the statistics in the report are frightening. They report, “32% of Canadian adults reported they had experienced some form of abuse before the age of 16.” Might the answer actually be more nuanced? To reach this conclusion, the authors cite the Canadian Community Health Survey – Mental Health. This study asked Canadians over the age of 18 about their childhood, and asked whether they experienced any of the following: 

Physical abuse was classified as 1 or more of the following 3 criteria: 1) being slapped on the face, head or ears, or hit or spanked with something hard 3 or more times; 2) being pushed, grabbed or shoved, or having something thrown at the respondent to hurt them 3 or more times; and 3) being kicked, bit, punched, choked, burned or physically attacked 1 or more times. Sexual abuse was classified as experiencing attempts or being forced into unwanted sexual activity by being threatened, held down or hurt in some way, and/or sexually touched meaning unwanted touching or grabbing, kissing or fondling against the respondent’s will 1 or more times. Exposure to intimate partner violence was classified as having seen or heard parents, step-parents or guardians hitting each other or another adult in the home 3 or more times.

It’s not clear from the question whether respondents included violence at the hands of an adult or other children/youth. “Being pushed” is included with the obviously more violent acts of being choked or burned. This may be why rates of physical abuse were particularly elevated.

Other important aspects of the report went unreported by the media. For example, the whole first section examines Canada’s demographics, highlighting that in many provinces there are more people over age 65 than children under the age of 14. This demographic concern is pressing down upon Canadians at large. Supporting social programs is difficult without children, who become future taxpayers and fund the benefits we all enjoy. Demographic decline harms the vitality of our nation. 

As mentioned, there is a concern over what the report does not include. Parents are rarely mentioned. There is substantial evidence that stable families contribute to better child outcomes, which is an important aspect of child wellbeing.1 Ultimately, without attention to parents, problems for children cannot easily be resolved. Parents and family must be a critical part of the effort to work on some of the most egregious stats. Child welfare agencies increasingly look for kin to care for children from homes where parents are abusive or neglectful, which recognizes the fact that family matters to children. Children don’t grow up in a vacuum.

The lack of proposed solutions or attention to parents raises questions about who, precisely, will be doing the difficult work of helping children. Civil society organizations? Faith groups? Charities? Government? The reality is, none have optimal chances of success without including parents. The report provides a far more useful overview of child wellbeing in Canada than the media reports implied, yet it overlooks the important role of family in why children do or do not thrive. 

Amy Guliker is a Cardus intern. 

[1] "Twenty-five years of extensive and rigorous research has shown that children raised in stable, secure families have a better chance to flourish.” AEI-Brooking Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity. (2015, December). Changing family structures play a major role in the fight against poverty. Retrieved from  

Topics: Parenting, Family