7. Making a difference

What difference could it make to families with young children—indeed to all of us—if every child enjoyed a program like the one that exists at Bruce School or in many other exemplary communities?

Let us revisit the family profiled at the beginning of this chapter. In her short interview, the mother identifies the myriad of daily challenges that if not addressed could—not necessarily will—become long-term problems. Instead of being “stressed and depressed” at home with a new baby and a cantankerous toddler, the centre allows her to kick the isolation that mothers of new infants often experience. As a new Canadian, she found a social network at the school. Moreover, she credits the program with allowing her to relax, to breastfeed her baby and to help her toddler regulate his behaviour. Meanwhile, her older sons transitioned easily into school from kindergarten and the family centre and are doing well. Magela has daily communication with their teachers and the family often gets together over lunch or for after-school events.

This is not simply a warm-hearted story of a stay-at-home, immigrant mother. Traditionally, the integration of new Canadians has been viewed strictly through a social justice lens. Yet fostering social equity has a very real impact on economic sustainability and growth. Canada has not been doing as well integrating new arrivals. Studies have examined the hard costs of isolation and the resulting development of immigrant enclaves.36 They also explore the economic advantages of creating strong neighbourhood networks and leveraging the talents of new Canadians. For a country like Canada whose very existence depends on immigration, having the school take double-billing as a welcome wagon for new arrivals is effective programming that makes financial sense.

If the centre reduced but one incident of maternal depression, it would more than pay for itself. Depression disrupts the mother–infant relationship and increases the risk for learning, emotional and behavioural disorders in children.37 Most new mothers, and up to 25 percent of new fathers, experience depressive symptoms that range from very mild to quite severe.38 When detected early, studies have found positive results from expanding the mother’s support network, group counselling and even classes in baby massage.39 Early childhood programs provide a non-judgmental, nurturing environment for early childhood and health professionals to meet regularly with new parents and their babies and respond as needed.

Support for breastfeeding is another of the many ways that early childhood programs aid in the healthy development of young children by helping their parents. Breastfeeding not only provides optimal nutritional, immunological and emotional benefits for the growth and development of infants, but also has a protective effect on maternal mental health. Among the resources the family centre offers new parents are public health nurses trained in nursing support.

Being stressed and depressed is not restricted to new mothers, nor to financially struggling, new immigrant or lone-parents. The Squeeze Generation is looking after both young children and aging parents. They are working longer and harder, and job security is not an option.40 A survey by the Conference Board of Canada found that the most frazzled employee is the professional mother.41

Stressed-out parents are not great for their children. Stress disrupts parents’ ability to manage their own conduct, leaving them with fewer resources to regulate their children’s behaviour. The more harried parents are, the less likely they are able to engage positively with their children. Chronic parental stress ‘drips down’ on children; researchers have connected chronic parent stress to the poor academic record of their children.42

Toronto Star columnist Catherine Porter described her mounting tension as she waits on the subway platform at the end of each work day, willing the train to come: “[W]hile the neighbourhood school might take [daughter] Lyla for a full day, it won’t take my son Noah. He’s too young. He’ll have to go to Lyla’s old daycare, a subway stop away. Two drop-offs. Two pickups. Double stress on the subway platform. Daycare breakdance.”43

Researchers have found that parents whose children attend programs that are integrated into their school are much less anxious than their neighbours whose kids are in the regular jumbled system.44 Direct gains have also been documented for children. Evaluations of Sure Start in the UK,45 Communities for Children in Australia46 and Toronto First Duty47 found children in neighbourhoods with integrated children’s services showed better social development,48 more positive social behaviour and greater independence/self-regulation compared with children living in similar areas without an integrated program.

Canadians must make the hard and important job of raising children a little easier. As a society, we cannot have it all. We rely on women’s labour and expect families to shoulder the social and financial load for rearing the next generation. But we pay a big price when families flounder and their children get left behind. Just as health care costs are unmanageable without health promotion, cleaning up after children that have fallen through the cracks is equally unsustainable.

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