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October 19, 2003


Ann Robertson

I have been working with CHANCES Family Resource Centre in PEI for the past ten years. Our mandate and focus are children from conception to age six. I offer the following comments related to children and families on Prince Edward Island that attempts to bridge research and practical experience.

Recent research has shed light on what really makes a critical difference in the development young children under the age of three. We now understanding the life long and profound positive effect of early nurturing on young children. There is an optimum time in early brain development where stimulation will actually enhance or impede neurological development, depending on whether the stimulation is positive or negative. The 7000 babies born in Canada this week are now involved in a process that will wire their brains for a lifetime. This process will have a tremendous influence on their future behaviour and their capacity to learn and cope for the rest of their lives. By the time these children enter the school system four to five years from now the critical period in their lives where they experience the most rapid brain development will be over. The opportunity to positively influence the outcomes for all young children is awesome and one which requires our immediate attention.

Children who are properly nurtured are able to maximize learning opportunities and because they feel secure will take risks as they actively engage in problem solving their way through the challenges they face. Our children will become the future cornerstones of our society. They are the one resource that will determine the future of Prince Edward Island and it's capacity to thrive in a changing world.

Children do not grow up alone. To bring a broader perspective to the discussion, it is important to look at the layers of various support systems that surround children. Families form the first layer of support around children and create the early environment which will set the stage for all future growth. Because families play such a critical role, it is important they receive the support of the broader community to do their parenting jobs well.

According to the Globe and Mail/Angus Reid poll, 62% of parents who still have kids at home indicate that their biggest worry is whether or not they are raising their children properly. Respondents also believed that first time parents should receive training on how to be good parents and compared to Canadians who don't have children, parents are hugely stressed out, are more apt to be depressed and lie awake at night worrying.

Family structures are changing and the new reality consists of a much higher percentage of both “blended” or “reconstituted” as well as lone parent families. Research being conducted by the Institute of Island Studies on Population and Demographic Trends on Prince Edward Island indicates that traditional two parent families on PEI with children at home still comprise a bare majority of all families at 50.3% in 1996. Regardless of the ever changing structural profile of families, they all still require the support of extended family, friends, neighbours and community in order to be the best parents possible for their children. Islanders have never lost the sense of interdependence required to support people in a caring way. All kinds of parenting and life skills are passed on from one generation to the next when immediate and extended family systems and community cooperate in caring for each other.

Communities that are caring possess a certain level of cohesiveness that has a tremendous positive impact on children and families. Port Colborne, a small community of 19,000, located on Lake Eire's north shore, has the smallest proportion of children falling through the cracks compared to 50 other municipalities across Canada's richest province of Ontario. The biggest question of course is - Why? It certainly isn't money. Kanata, an affluent suburb of Ottawa could not match the achievements of Port Colborne in relation to children.

Researchers describe the critically important characteristic of Port Colborne that makes it different from it's counterparts as "woven". They are a community who has made a decision to support children and families as part of their value base that translates into action. For example, any child who wants to play an organized sport is not denied the opportunity. Children don't get cut from teams because they are not good enough or because they can't afford the equipment that allows them to participate. This community makes room for children by having adequate parks and play areas. Everyone in the community assumes responsibility for "looking" out for children. This community has a strong volunteer component which contributes to all aspects of community life. They have what is referred to as "social cohesion" which means that parents, children, local government and the broader community work together to achieve common goals for kids. Community is us. We have direct influence over the health of our communities based on the decision we make as to whether or not we are going to become involved in the life of our community.

The policies and priorities of the provincial and federal governments create another layer that has a significant impact on children and families. Their areas of influence include early childhood intervention and education; tax cuts aimed at families; flexible work situations for parents; longer maternity, paternity leaves; ensuring high quality child care that is flexible and affordable etc. It is interesting to note that government spending in key areas such as education, health, income support, social services and crime occur after the most critical early years in the lives of children have passed.

The issue of family friendly work environments spans both the government and private sector. The economic pressures of supporting a family in today’s world creates demands on parents that have them caught between the ever increasing demands of both work and home. Family friendly policies such as flexible hours, job sharing, sick child leave, work place child care, can alleviate the stress associated with juggling work and family responsibilities especially in the early years.

Dr. Fraser Mustard is founding president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and has been a leading researcher in the area of brain development in young children. In a recent report called the "Early Years Study" which was commissioned by the province of Ontario Dr. Mustard outlines the following as critically important:

* Our future depends on our ability to manage the complex interplay of the emerging new economy, changing social environments and the impact of change on individuals, particularly those who are most vulnerable in the formative early years- our children.

* There is evidence of significant stress on families and early child development in the present period of major economic and social change.

* A key strategy for improving the capabilities of innovation of the next generation of citizens is to make early child development a priority of public and private sectors of society.

* Facing the work, family and early child development challenge is a shared responsibility among governments, employers, communities and families.

* Since a competent population that can cope with the socioeconomic change id crucial for future economic growth, the subject of early child development must be a high priority for a society and its governments.

It is important to make a final point in relation to the societal context in which
children and families develop and grow. The core value base of the society within which we live either enhances or impedes the success of children and families. Societies where children and families are truly valued, take action that is reflective of that value base. We have an opportunity on Prince Edward Island to show real leadership in relation to children. The Island already has a strong value base in relation to children and families and social cohesiveness as a caring community. We already possess most of the critical factors that can become a solid foundation to build the future we want for our children, families, and our community.

The children born on Prince Edward Island today will enter the workforce in the year 2020. We know that if these children enter the school system ready to learn, that is, they can get along with other children; are open to new experiences and stimulation; and have developed coping skills, the likelihood that they will be successful at school increases significantly. Our new knowledge about child development provides us with an opportunity to build a stronger future for our children. There is a model emerging from the recent research in early child development that offers great promise. Making an active decision as a community to invest in our children now is one real way that we can ensure a viable and thriving Island community throughout the next century. We will be producing a strong society with future leaders for our province and our country who will carry our vision forward and have the capacity to successfully deal with any challenge they meet along the way.

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Families with young children

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