Globe and Mail

Like most parents, Mark and Pam Zaorski mistakenly believe that a baby can manipulate its parents, but he says that he knows cuddling and baby talk are important for the development of son Ben, and she is confident of her parenting abilities. EDWARD REGAN/The Globe and Mail

Poll uncovers parental shortcomings

Foundation lays the blame on Dr. Spock's myth that too much attention spoils babies

Wednesday, March 31, 1999
Jane Gadd
The Globe and Mail

Most Canadian parents are clueless about child development, feel insecure and unsupported, and worry that Canadian society does not care about children, a national survey has found.

"Parents don't know the most basic facts about fostering healthy development," the Invest in Kids Foundation said after polling 1,645 households in January.

"It's disturbing to see such levels of insecurity when parents know this is the most important job they can do," foundation vice-president Carol Grill Russell told reporters yesterday.

The foundation, led by child psychiatrists and funded by corporations and Health Canada, is trying to spread the word about definitive research that has nailed down the link between how babies are nurtured and stimulated and the way their brains develop.

"Never in the history of civilization have we had so much scientific information about how a child's brain develops. And never have our young people been so isolated from their families, so bereft of practical experience and practical wisdom," said Freda Martin, an adviser to Invest in Kids.

"This isn't about blaming parents, and it's not a condemnation of governments," Dr. Martin said. "It's society that has to change."

The foundation says the problem is a huge and persistent myth started by Dr. Benjamin Speck, the parenting guru of the 1950s, that you can spoil a baby with too much attention and render him lazy and dependent.

In fact, research has proved in the past five years that babies need constant interaction with adults, and that cooing, cuddling, singing, baby talk and eye contact in the first couple of years actually organize neurons in the brain in a way optimal to future learning, creativity and resilience.

While it is commonly believed that a baby's brain is hard-wired before birth, the research showed the brain is a work in progress for the first three years of life, and that if the right response and stimulation are not provided at that time, healthy development will not occur.

Frank DeCaria, a father of two, is unhappy about the way family life has changed since he was a child. Family values have gone out the window, he said.

Mr. DeCaria, 37, who was out with his young boys at a Toronto playground yesterday, said: "I was brought up in an Italian family and we believe in giving kids lots of love.

But he is quick to acknowledge that he has had some difficulties as a parent, "You're always second-guessing yourself, doubting your self, wondering if you're a good parent," he said. "I'm a lot better than I used to be, but I've still got a lot of work to do."

The poll found that 92 per cent of those surveyed believe parenting is the most important job they can do, and 89 per cent know that their influence during a child's early years is critical to the way the child turns out as an adult.

But only half know that their child's intellectual development is strongly influenced by emotional closeness to parents. Only one-third know that a child's experiences before turning 3 will greatly influence how well he does in school. And less than one-fifth know that infants are incapable of manipulating parents consciously and are capable of becoming depressed.

One in three parents reported that they had trouble understanding their child's feelings and needs, and one in two said they didn't know how to handle difficult situations with their child.

Like 82 per cent of the parents in the survey, Mark and Pam Zaorski hold the mistaken belief that a baby can manipulate its parents.

But Mr. Zaorski, who was on the Toronto beach yesterday with his son Ben, said he knows that cuddling and baby talk are "super-important."


What they don't know
82 per cent don't know that infants are incapable of manipulating their parents.
82 per cent don't know babies can get depressed.
66 per cent don't know that the things a child experiences before age 3 will greatly influence his school performance later on.

What they believe
92 per cent say being a parent is the most important thing they can do.
89 per cent say their influence in the early years is critical to the child.
78 per cent are confident they know how to make sure their children develop fully during the early years.
60 per cent do not feel that Canada values its young children.

(Survey of 1,645 households with children under 6 conducted by Market Facts of Canada for Invest in Kids Foundation in January, 1999. Considered accurate within 2.5 percentage points 95 per cent of the time.)

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