Search this site powered by FreeFind

Quick Link

for your convenience!


Human Rights, Youth Voices etc.

click here


For Information Concerning the Crisis in Darfur

click here


Northern Uganda Crisis

click here


 Whistleblowers Need Protection


Whither Family Life?

A paper presented by David Kilgour, P.C., M.P.
At the International Multicultural Conference
University of Alberta, Edmonton
July 26 - August 1, 1998

For more than a decade, Canadians have paid special tribute to our families each October during National Family Week. Last year’s theme – "Celebrate Family: Promoting Family Well-Being" – was intended to reinforce the concept of recognizing family strengths and using them to build family-friendly environments in our neighbourhoods and workplaces.

"Promoting Family Well-Being" might appear to some alarmed by the current state of our families generally as an understatement, yet it captures the challenge facing us all: how to ensure the continuation of family as the basic unit of Canadian and other societies.

The available evidence indicates that the "smallest democracy in the heart of society" is undergoing some major shockwaves.

How we resolve the problems of families will determine in large measure the shape and quality of life in future generations. Few would deny the importance of the family in either the inclusive or traditional sense as a social unit which makes up the core of our society. Although the role of the family has evolved with contemporary society, it remains the most important building block in virtually every community on the face of the planet.

It is through the family in both the broad and narrower sense of the term that our destiny as a people is nourished and that community values are upheld or discarded. The upheavals the family has experienced over the past few decades serve to emphasize the need to strengthen it as an institution and to ensure that it is given adequate opportunity to maintain its vital role as a societal pillar. "Healthy children make strong families and ultimately a strong country", says my colleague Paul Szabo, MP for Mississauga South, who is one of the most passionate voices on behalf of family well-being on the federal level. Can anyone disagree?

Strong Families and Strong Nation

Szabo’s 1997 book, Strong Families Make a Strong Country, is devoted to issues relating to family, children and marriage. He has been an active promoter of a number of measures to promote "family well-being". We need more elected people at all levels with a real commitment to families; only then we can find the directions needed to pursue to assist them.

Human beings benefit greatly from being raised in nurturing, stable and supportive, preferably two-parent families. Everywhere in the world we should affirm the role of the family in preserving the better interests of communities. We should work together – governments, social advocacy groups, and academia – to develop policies that support the family, rather than contribute – often unintentionally – to its breakdown.

Returning to the norms of the nuclear family may not appear to be a viable solution in fast-paced modern economies and ongoing social changes and development of our children must take priority over all other social decision. Attempting The health to reinvent a better balance between the needs of children and youth and those of parents and adults would, however, help reduce the destructive forces threatening family life.

As we approach the third millennium, support for families is weakening in many lands as a cultural value; concepts like individualism and personal autonomy are growing. The sense of community seems down in too many places across Canada. Many authors, researchers and commentators on the modern family are calling for a broad cultural movement in support of strengthening families as the core of society.

The Economist magazine discussed the "disappearing family" in Western countries a few years ago. "Where marriage is in terminal decline, most children are being brought up by single mothers and society is falling apart as a result." This conclusion, probably somewhat overdone, summarizes the problem and defines the challenges many societies face.

In too many American neighbourhoods, for example, the traditional family as an institution appears to have collapsed completely; in some poor inner cities in households with children, fewer than one in ten has a father in residence. In Sweden, about half the babies are now born to unwed mothers; half of Swedish marriages end in divorce and unmarried partners split up three times as often as married ones. Canadians, like others, have witnessed major changes in the structure of the family: increases in divorce and births outside marriage. Over the last three decades, Canada’s divorce rate has increased more than fivefold; about 30% of Canadian children are now born out of wedlock. Canadian marriage rates fell almost 40% between 1971 and 1994 – a spectacular drop by any standards.

State of Canadian Family

The Angus Reid Group released a report on the state of the Canadian family several years ago. Overall, it found a strong belief that Canada’s families are in crisis (63%). The reasons cited by those surveyed included the "rate of divorce and instability of the family unit" (28%), "financial difficulties" (15%), "lack of values in society" (18%), "violence and crime" (13%), and "unemployment" (12%).

The growth in women’s participation in the labour force is the result of both necessity and preference. With dual income parents, a fifth of our children go home to an empty house after school. As one Canadian author on child health notes: "The bottom line is that many kids these days are raising themselves."

Canadians are increasingly realizing that exchanging intact family values for independence and self-expression exacts a steep price: a diminished quality of life. The often-challenging task of balancing work and family creates substantial stress for parents and takes a toll in diminished family life and child welfare.

Costs of Not Caring for Children

The weakening of family structure has hurt children generally. Multi-generational studies in Sweden, Britain and America all tend to show that, compared with their peers of the same economic level, children in one-parent families do less well in school, get in trouble more often and have more emotional and health problems. They are also more likely to become single parents themselves.

Another study indicated a correlation between family breakdown and increase in criminal behaviour. Experts in antisocial behaviour among young people explain the increase in youth violence as a direct consequence of the destruction of families and late intervention by authority figures.

Insufficient parental involvement in children’s lives and awareness of their needs can cause aggressive behaviour in teens. The past decade witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of young female persons charged with violent offences. Some sociologists explain this trend by societal permissiveness towards aggressive behaviour in general as encouraged by commercial films and television. Dr. Jalal Shamsie, a University of Toronto professor and head of the Institute for the Study of Antisocial Behaviour in Youth, observed that young girls historically have been aggressive. In the past, this was demonstrated mostly through relational aggression. "What are we obtaining now", states Shamsie, "is that not only are girls relationally aggressive, they are showing signs of physical, overt aggression, which is characteristic of boys in the past."

Shamsie sees the increase of youth violence as a direct consequence of weakening family life and late intervention by authority figures. He believes that with families deteriorating continuity is lost and that instability in the home leads to aggression in children.

A recent study by Canada’s Addiction Research Foundation examined the link between family life and smoking, heavy drinking, drug use, delinquency, and drinking and driving. Importantly, it indicated that the strength of family relationships has more impact on child behaviour than their family’s structure. "Youth who feel relationships within the family are important and who spend time with their families, were much less likely to engage in drug use and other problem behaviours", said ARF scientist .Ed Adlaf. A wise person told me once that what our children want and need most from us is our time.

Family Time Famine

The National Longitudinal Survey indicated that 26% of all Canadian children and 41% of those raised by a single mother experience one or more emotional, behavioural, academic and/or social problem. Dr. Paul Steinhauer a psychiatrist at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, points at what he calls "family time famine" as the main reason. "Never before", he says, "in the sixty years in which statistics have been kept, have children spent so few working hours in the company of their parents."

One study shows that parents see their children 10 to 12 fewer working hours a week than families did 30 years ago. The 1998 studies by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the University of Maryland and Statistics Canada indicate that we spend more time commuting in our cars than interacting with our kids. Canadian and American men spend an average 81 minutes a day on the road – twice the amount of time they evidently spend each day with their children. Women are in their cars for a little more than an hour a day. Married men with full-time jobs spend a little more than six hours a week on primary childcare. Married women with full-time jobs spend over nine hours a week on primary childcare.

Most jobs are still designed with a traditional family structure in perspective. There is little or no flexibility in the workplace, especially in management. The resulting stress impacts on the mental health of not only employees but also on their children. Some American statistics indicate that more than one-third of the children of executives have psychiatric or drug-related problems. Fifteen percent of children of other employees have similar problems.

Growing Up in a Fatherless Society

The observed erosion of fatherhood as a social role is often seen as the major reason for the declining rate for marriage and the rising rate for divorce. The rehabilitation of paternal influence is viewed by many commentators on family issues as one of the important ways to address key issues in families.

The absence of fathers is directly linked to most social nightmares – from boys with guns to teen pregnancies. Social scientists see a direct relationship between a father’s absence and his child’s likelihood of being a dropout, jobless, a drug addict, a suicide victim, mentally ill or a target of child sexual abuse. There are places in the U.S., as a 1995 issue of U.S. News and World Report described, where fathers – usually better at socializing boys – are so rare that bedlam engulfs the community. Teachers, ministers, police officers and other substitute authority figures fight losing battles in these communities against gang members to serve as role models to preteen and teenage boys It is the direct parental involvement and influence that is most effective in preventing these growing concerns.

A growing amount of research indicates that children raised in families with fathers grow up to be more intellectually competent, socially capable and emotionally mature than ones raised without fathers. Those without fathers tend to display emotional and behavioural problems, are more likely to be suspended from school, have difficulty getting along with their peers, and get into trouble with the police. A 1996 study by Statistics Canada revealed that one in six children who live in a household headed by a single mother have problems ranging from academic difficulties to physical aggression. An earlier study of Ontario children by Dr. Dan Orford concluded that 21% of children in one-parent families had a psychiatric disorder, compared to 14% of children in two-parent ones.

In 1994, in recognition of the problems of a fatherless society, U.S. Vice President Al Gore launched a nationwide "Father to Father" program, a non-governmental initiative to unite men with one another in the task of becoming better fathers. Participating local communities and agencies develop their own plans to expand and enhance existing father support programs, create new opportunities for men to support one another in groups in their roles as fathers and rally businesses, congregations, schools, and agencies to focus on the importance of fathers in children’s lives.

Another U.S. program supporting fathers is The Teen Father Program, which encourages fathers to acknowledge their paternity, obtain a high school diploma and become financially responsible by establishing a career path. In the program, fathers learn to respect their children’s mothers and interact with their children. Over 70% of young fathers who participated in this program earned diplomas and 97% are providing support for their children.

The Divorce Culture

It is often said that among the worst calamities in life divorce is usually ranked just after the death of a spouse. Children are the main victims of divorce even though in many cases they are also suffering in their parent’s unhappy marriage. Divorce sometimes offers solutions to adults, yet it is frequently devastating for children. One child psychologist who studied her clients over a 25-year period said that fully one-third of children reported moderate or severe depression five years after a divorce. The hurt may remain hidden for years. Children of divorce often grow up wary of love, marriage and family, and over a third have little or no ambition ten years after their parents split. The head of a Toronto divorce support service Rhonda Freeman, claims that in 25 years she has yet to meet a child who has experienced no effects from divorce.

In Canada, divorce – a rarity before 1968 – has become a mainstream, socially accepted occurrence. About 30% of Canadian marriages end in divorce, while in the U.S. the figure is now about 44%. An American social historian, author and critic, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, in her recent book, The Divorce Culture, dispels many of the ideas behind current divorce trends. Americans have embraced, she states, the "expressive divorce" culture, seeing it as an individual entitlement, a ticket to personal growth and a vehicle for social progress for women and children. The author, with the support of extensive research and 30 years of persistently high divorce rates, finds this opinion an illusion, with devastating consequences for many American children. Whitehead concludes:

Divorce has indeed hurt children. It has created economic insensitivity and disadvantaged many children who would not otherwise be economically vulnerable. It has led to more fragile and unstable family households. It has caused a mass exodus of fathers from children’s households, and all too often, from their lives.

Helping Families Help Themselves

Increasingly, family advocates and social workers in Canada and abroad concentrate on devising approaches to preventing family and marriage breakdown. Preventing divorce seems far better than dealing with its consequences. Community leaders in many U.S. cities argue that intervening in at-risk families is not just a good idea but a social necessity. This movement started in the early 1990s and involved 50 communities across that country which introduced experimental "pro-active" programs to reach troubled families before problems got worse. In 1997 these programs have spread to 260 cities in 38 states and formed a national network called Healthy Families America.

Marriage programs aimed at improving relationships and averting breakdowns are gaining support in many communities. In the U.S, Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist, has become a great advocate for marriage enrichment. He has developed a ‘marriage savers’ program for communities and churches, which he claims has already lowered divorce rates in cities where it has been taken up.

In Australia, the Howard Government has demonstrated that family is a priority for it. Launching the new round of funding for 1997, the Attorney General, Daryl Williams, reiterated his government’s commitment to strengthen and maintain family relationships through increased marriage and relationship education services. The Australian family support initiatives include changes to taxation and greater flexibility in industrial relations to support more flexible and increased employment opportunities. The government through its Family Services Program in the department of the Attorney General contracts 44 community-based organizations to provide relationship support services at more than 110 locations throughout Australia.

One of the more innovative Australian family services is assistance to stepfamilies. It is estimated that about 20% of all families in Australia are stepfamilies with a higher incidence concentration in the outer eastern area of Melbourne. Research indicates that partners in these stepfamilies face a much higher risk of separation and divorce than those in a first marriage. It has been demonstrated that stepfamilies, like partners in all families, can benefit from participating in quality education services that develop skills and understanding to build a positive, healthy relationship.

In the U.K., innovative projects aimed at preventing marriage breakdown and improving access to marriage support services have government approval and financial support. The Lord Chancellor launched a Marriage Taskforce in 1995 to identify the availability of marriage support services, and how these met the needs of couples. Funds were made available for pilot projects with the potential to reduce the incidence of marriage breakdown. In 1997, 13 projects were selected and began operation. Those selected included: marriage preparation programs, including one for couples who do not marry in church; telephone hotlines and national telephone counselling services for married couples; a media campaign on Premier Radio to change the culture of marriage and provide easy access to religious marriage counsellors and educators; an African-Caribbean marriage support helpline; a drop-in marriage and advice centre; and counselling service and marriage preparation and counselling for Asian communities. The main objectives are to promote a positive and realistic image of marriage, raise public awareness of marriage support services, reduce the stigma attached to seeking help, and to test the effectiveness of different forms of intervention in preventing marital breakdown.

Canadian Experience

Increasingly, mandatory parenting and marriage education appears to be gaining support across this country. In Alberta, as in some U.S. states, parenting courses are mandatory for all separated and divorced couples, not as a punishment but to stress the importance of the new challenges in parenting. In Edmonton, a special six-hour program teaches parents seeking divorce how to handle marital break-up and face up to the damage done to children in custody battles. The program was well received and 90% of participants admitted it was very helpful.

Some of the early U.S. intervention programs indicate that about 5% of all couples seeking divorce have found ways of resolving their difficulties and have not proceeded with the divorce. In Canada, voluntary courses for divorcing parents are available but are not yet very popular. Last December Paul Szabo introduced in our House of Commons a Private Member’s Bill recommending counselling prior to granting a divorce. The bill died, but the issue remains alive in the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on Child Custody and Access.

This Committee held hearings in the spring of 1998 across Canada and heard stories of family violence, child custody and bitter access battles. In short, the misery of many children caught up in post-divorce reality across Canada was clear. The Committee has a mandate to examine and analyze issues relating to parenting arrangements after separation and divorce, and to explore the need for more child-centered approach to family law policies and practices and child-focused parenting arrangements based on children’s needs and best interests. Hopefully, the input the Committee is getting from Canadians is going to result in specific recommendations that will lead to legislative changes that will truly put children’s interests first during the painful process of breaking-up a family.

A number of recent reports by National Crime Prevention Council explore the theme of crime prevention by focussing on children and their families. The Council urges intervention initiatives to view children in a holistic way. They support has to be offered across major areas of influence in the child’s life – family, care provider/school, and peer/community. The Council states: "This can be realized by different levels of government, educational, social and health agencies, and community groups working together to develop an integrated strategy for crime prevention that focuses on supporting children and families."

I met Debbie Morrison of Edmonton last month. She is a representative of a group of Albertans who vigorously and decisively promote a strategy to strengthen the healthy development of Alberta’s children and youth within their families and communities. The group’s proposed "Ongoing parent education and support program" is based on available evidence indicating that parent education and support results in positive changes in families. Ms. Morrison argues that by offering ongoing support to all parents we would significantly reduce the number of families experiencing severe difficulties, thereby reducing the number of families requiring intensive interventions. Indeed, the proven success of programs focussing on improving parenting skills already implemented indicates effective intentions can make a difference in the well-being of the family as a unit and each of its members.

"We must focus on families who are most at risk today…" commented Dr. Richard Tremblay, a recognised University of Montreal authority on crime and related issues, "…because the children in their families will one day be parents themselves and will bring their history to their roles as mothers or fathers."

The Hawaii Healthy START Program which offered home visit, practical support and education resulted in significant reductions in variables associated with later delinquency Child abuse decreased by 50 percent; violent behaviour in children and adolescents decreased, and school failure was reduced. Overall cost savings were reported to be about $1.600 per month per child.

Canadian programs "Family S.O.S." of Nova Scotia and "Mouvement SEM" (Sensibilisition ŕ l’Entance Meltraiteč) Quebec, targets parents of young children at risk and work towards preservation of families and the prevention of abuse and neglect. Permit me to mention an excellent example of community-born initiative that originated in the city of Edmonton. "Success by Six" is not a program, nor service, nor agency. It is a community wide effort to ensure that every child starts Grade 1 ready to learn. A joint collaboration among levels of parents, non-profit agencies, businesses, police and public health inspired to action by the desire to help children. The programs provided among others, include parenting groups and supports, pre-natal services and pre-school education to young children and their families.

As we enter the 21st century, we can only hope that our families will adapt to increasing outside pressures and successfully face down forces that tend to break it apart. Leaders of governments with family-oriented policies, as available international evidence indicates, have a major role to play in reducing poverty, unemployment, violence, divorce and other negative phenomena threatening family stability.

Missing Values

Character and sound values are best-developed in home settings; the lack of those in young people is blamed often on lack of parental concern. "The irony is that we have the best group of educated parents in history doing the least for their own children," observed historian, Maris Vinovskis of the University of Michigan. The extraordinary academic achievements of Asian students are pointed at, especially the children of poor and linguistically disadvantaged boat people who are "walking away with fellowships." Their success is attributed in part to their culture of strong family systems where values like activity, responsibility and work are both taught and lived.

Both research and anecdotal observations indicate that contemporary youth are less courteous and increasingly ruder. The contributing factors to such behaviour are usually listed as the isolating effects of our computer culture, absent and stressed-out parents, and diminishing respect for authority figures. Parents and teachers share a responsibility to socialize children, a task requiring time, patience and positive examples. Again, with a time crunch at home, parental guidance and structure is missing.

Ethics Stone Age?

An American philosopher, Christina Sommers, charges that today’s young people are suffering from "cognitive moral confusion". They not only have trouble distinguishing right from wrong – which make them ethically illiterate – they question whether such standards even exist. Dr. Sommers sees a need for a ‘Great Relearning’ in order to restore young peoples knowledge and understanding of moral ideals. She advocates "moral conservationism" based on the premise that we are born into a moral environment. Just as there are basic environmental necessities, including clean air, safe food, fresh water, there are basic ethical necessities like civility, honesty, consideration, self-discipline: "We must make students aware that there is a standard of ethical ideals that all civilizations worthy of the name have discovered. We must encourage them to read the Bible, Aristotle’s ‘Ethics’, Shakespeare’s "King Lear", the Koran, and the Analects of Confucius. When they read almost any great work, they will encounter these basic moral values: integrity, respect for human life, self-control, honesty, courage and self-sacrifice."

No community can allow its children to remain ethically illiterate. A primary obligation of all healthy societies is to pass along ethical and cultural traditions to children. Parents and educators play a major role in this generational moral-code transfer – parents at home, teachers at schools and universities.

Families will continue to change, adopt and respond to outside pressures, government policies, economic and social environments, etc. Ultimately, the family as the institution which provides sustenance and love to its members will depend on whether it succeeds to teach and pass on its values and code of ethics that made it great to the next generation. This is a challenge all of us might reflect on.

Family How-To

The June 1998 issue of Transition – the publication of the Vanier Institute of the Family is entitled "Family Strength: What makes some families stronger than others?"

Some answers to this question are provided in the keynote article by Ben Schlesinger, an author and a prefessor Emeritus of the Faculty of Scoial Work at the University of Toronto. Schlesinger identifies the most important characteristics strong families have in common. According to leading experts on family issues listed in the article strong family: communicates and listens, affirms and supports one another, spends time together, teaches a sense of right and wrong, respects each family member, allows children to make mistakes and face the consequences, delegates responsibility and has a shared religious orientation or a spiritual direction, to mention just the most frequently mentioned ones. Professor Schlesinger points out that "if Canadians want to strengthen our nation’s families, we will have to do more to promote the characteristics and traits of strong families". The emphasis should be put on prevention rather than treatment, equipping families to deal with that problem rather than fixing the damage already done.

With all the outside help families should be receiving, the greatest resource of solving each family’s problems often lies within the hearts, minds and homes of families and individual family members.

Stephen Covey, the author of a world-wide best-seller teaching business people to be more principled, applied his concepts to family life in his most recent book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families". He says he and his spouse practised the principles outlined in his book in his own family of nine children and 27 grandchildren.

Covey believes that by consistently applying the timeless, universal and self-evident principles outlined in "7 Habits" we can bring about positive changes in any relationship or situation. These principles enable family members to communicate effectively about their problems and resolve them, and ultimately to create "a beautiful family culture!" For Covey, "family itself is a we experience, a we mentality. And admittedly, the movement from ‘me’ to ‘we’ – from independence to inter-dependence – is perhaps one of the most challenging and difficult aspects of family life". Against the background of the priorities of modern-American culture that places priority on individual freedom, immediate gratification, efficiency, Covey notes about family " … there is literally no road laden with as much joy and satisfaction as the road of rich, inter-dependent family living".

A Commitment to Children

Last fall, our federal government launched the National Children’s Agenda (NCA) – a comprehensive, long-term strategy to improve the well-being of Canada’s children. The NCA will build on efforts already underway by many partners – federal, provincial and territorial governments, community groups, businesses, volunteers and families to design initiatives ensuring that all Canada’s children have the best possible opportunity to develop to their full potential as healthy, successful and contributing members of society.

The national agenda will include among others these key initiatives: National Child Benefit system, Learning Readiness Indicators, expanding Aboriginal Head Start program to on-reserve children, and establishing Centres of Excellence for Children’s Well-Being. The Children’s Agenda signifies a major commitment on the part of the government and society to our children, and as the near future will show, it will hopefully bring a real improvement in the lives of the most vulnerable segment of our society.

In March of this year "Out From the Shadows", an International Summit of Sexually Exploited Youth, in Victoria, British Columbia took place. Young delegates with experiences of sexual exploitation from across the Americas presented a declaration and agenda for action to participating representatives of governments and international non-governmental organizations. A highly emotional gathering of sharing painful memories and traumatic experiences resulted in hopes and recommendations that should guide any community’s effort towards the eradication of commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth.

Permit me to quote from "A Commitment to Children", a poem read during the conference. In the most direct and poignant way this piece sums up the combined experiences of children as we move across the world from country to country, city to city, home to home. In my opinion, the true success of this and any other conference on family and children can be measured by the degree to which we succeed in translating this commitment to all our children into vigorous sustained effort and specific actions that will bring a real difference to the lives of children everywhere.

A Commitment to Children

We accept responsibility for children
who put chocolate fingers everywhere
who like to be tickled
who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants
who erase holes in their math workbooks
who can never find their shoes.

And we accept responsibility for those
who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire
who can’t bound down the street in a new pair of
who have never counted potatoes
who are born in places we wouldn’t be caught dead
who never go to the circus
who live in an x-rated world.

We accept responsibility for children
who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions
who sleep with the dog and bury goldfish
who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money
who cover themselves with band-aids and sing off key
who slurp their soup.

And we accept responsibility for those
who have no safe blanket to drag behind them
who watch their parents watch them die
who can’t find any bread to steal
who don’t have any rooms to clean up
whose pictures aren’t on anyone’s dresser
whose monsters are real.

We accept responsibility for children
who spend their allowance before Tuesday
who throw temper tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food
who like ghost stories
who shove dirty clothes under the bed and never rinse the tub
who get visits from the tooth fairy
who don’t like to be kissed in front of the car pool
who squirm in church and scream in the phone
whose tears sometimes make us laugh and whose
smiles can make us cry.

And we accept responsibility for those whose nightmares come in the daytime
who can never eat anything
who have never seen a dentist
who aren’t spoiled by anybody
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep
who live and move but have no being.

And we accept responsibility for children who
want to be carried
and for those we never give up on
and for those who don’t ask for a second chance
for those we smother
and for those who will grab the hand
of anybody kind enough to offer it.


Home Books Photo Gallery About David Survey Results Useful Links Submit Feedback