For over three decades we have experienced a growing and radical attack on the traditional family and its position as the primary unit of a stable society.
Young people have adopted society’s apparent acceptance that marriage itself is a transitory, and just like any other monogamous relationship, one can go from one marriage to another until we get it right. In this maelstrom what happens to our children? We have developed a lifestyle in which parents’ responsibilities towards their children and each other are trivialized.
Nonetheless, the traditional family is actually thriving in Canada although how we live in that family has changed. In 36 per cent of two-parent families both parents have full-time jobs. The latest portrait of children in Canada reveals a startling and frankly amazing 83 per cent of children 12 years and under lived in two-parent families in 1994. This statistic builds on the 1991 census which also showed a resurgence of commitment to traditional family values.
The contrast though in 1994 was, that of the 16.5 per cent of children 12 and under who live in lone parent situations, a majority (54.9 per cent) lived with a parent who was not employed at all. Lone parent families constitute 47 per cent of those families where Canadian children are growing up in poverty and for the most part the head of those households are women.
Early in February, a confidential report “Our children’s Well-Being, Our Nation’s Future: Strategies for Healthy Children,” was leaked to the press. The committee recommended a mandatory 12-week course prior to any legal consideration of separation or divorce. The recommendation was a result of a suggestion by committee member, Mississauga South Liberal Paul Szabo to the committee. Responding to the question, Why this recommendation? Mr. Szabo cited the high rate of divorce in Canada, and its detrimental affect on those involved, especially the children.
“It is staggering,” he says, “in the sixties the divorce rate was about 13 per cent and in 1993, 38 per cent, and now almost every second marriage ends in divorce.” Szabo noted the high rate of lone parent families where children are raised in poverty. He wondered how we can help couples think through their decision to separate of divorce, help them to better understand the effect of that separation on them financially, emotionally, on their ability to parent their children.
Statistics reveal some disturbing trends in teen social, mental and physical health in lone parent or separated families. Is there not some way to intervene, to mediate? Szabo noted that some will see the committee recommendation as “draconian.” Already he has been told that the government has no right in the bedrooms of the nation.
His response is constructive: “What we need is a ‘preventative’ approach, a positive approach during a critical period…a lot of people are not aware of the impact of a marriage breakdown on themselves and their children.”
Szabo said that as a society we must re-learn how necessary it is for parents to put their children’s interest above their own. Children have suffered and continue to suffer when their parent’s divorce or separate, yet we have somehow overlooked the suffering, especially when it is translated into behavioural problems, therapy, repeated grades, expulsion from school, higher rates of health problems, injury or criminal activity.
The committee recommendation builds on pilot projects in the U.S. and one in Edmonton. Szabo is anxious to formalize this recommendation in a private member’s bill later in the spring. His plans include a press conference so that he can better elaborate the national and principal points behind his private member’s bill and the health committee recommendation. He envisions an information booklet which would provide and educational background to the whole issue of divorce and separation and the effect on husbands, wives, children, the immediate family and society.
(Jakki Jeffs is executive director of Alliance for Life, Ontario).