Toronto Star

Sunday, March 14, 1999

Should we need a licence to be a parent?

Two academics think so, and they want legislation. The idea is sparking debate

By Janice Turner
Toronto Star Life Writer

You need a licence to drive a car, serve liquor, go on a deer hunt, heck, you need a licence to call yourself a barber.

Why not to raise a child?

Why is it that society demands so very little of prospective parents?

That's what two Nova Scotia academics want to know. They suggest would-be moms and dads be required to get a ``parenting'' licence.

Their idea has attracted much attention, not all of it flattering.

They call the concept pro-active. Some call the idea elitist and authoritarian.

They insist they have only the best interests of children in mind. Parents would be more respectful of their obligations if they had to earn the privilege, they say. A licence would set some minimum requirements, symbolize the importance of parenting and underscore the notion of children's rights.

Child abuse and child abandonment hit the headlines with depressing frequency. Most recently, a 5-year-old girl was found wandering barefoot in the snow in the middle of the night while her mother was at a karaoke bar. The Toronto Children's Aid Society said it deals with 10 cases each week in which children have been left unattended.

A Toronto Star investigation two years ago looked at 70 cases between 1991 and 1996 in which a parent (or other caregiver such as a mother's boyfriend) was charged criminally after a child died of abuse.

Katherine Covell, an associate professor of psychology, and husband Brian Howe, an associate political science professor, are directors of the Children's Rights Centre at the University College of Cape Breton. They maintain that family life and parental freedoms are already regulated. The trouble is, they say, the rules deal with problems after the fact.

By that time, too often, irreparable damage has been done.

It can take years, Covell and Howe say, for any action to be taken after a family is brought to the attention of children's aid officials.

Aside from such problems, there is no method of preparing people, especially teenagers, for parenthood and little to discourage them from having babies in the first place, they say. A teenager who completes high school may be less likely to choose parenthood as a route to adulthood.

Covell and Howe recommend parents be compelled to complete high school, pass a certified course on infant development, obtain a licence, sign a contract agreeing not to abuse or neglect the child and take upgrade courses throughout the child's life and when there are major family changes, such as divorce, death of a spouse or sibling.

Children have rights and parents have responsibilities, the researchers say, yet many people who have children have no interest in raising them. (Howe has no children of his own but considers himself a father to Covell's two grown children.)

Requiring parents to have a high school diploma, they concede, is arbitrary and intended as a starting point for discussion. It has drawn criticism for being elitist.

Earlier this month, Ontario announced it will require 16- and 17-year-old welfare mothers to complete high school and take a 35-hour parenting course, or lose their benefits. A teen who complies will get $500 toward her education or her child's. Critics say the policy is punitive and assumes that low-income parents are less capable than those who are well-off.


`The idea is you have to have skills, which parenting does require. Too often it's seen as `natural.' A licence would bring it to another level and would make people aware that there maybe are things that they could learn'
- Stan Shapiro, psychotherapist

Stan Shapiro, a Richmond Hill psychotherapist who has worked with parents and families for more than 30 years, says that, as a symbol, a licence could do much to raise the profile of parenting.

``Perhaps the job of parenting would be taken more seriously,'' he says. ``The idea is you have to have skills, which parenting does require. Too often it's seen as `natural.' A licence would bring it to another level and would make people aware that there maybe are things that they could learn.''

Shapiro is director of the Ontario Parenting Education Centre, a private, non-profit organization that runs practical parenting courses throughout Greater Toronto.

He points to a recent Statistics Canada study that concluded parenting style has a larger impact on a child's behaviour than any other factor.

``Parenting matters a heck of a lot,'' Ivan Fellegi, Canada's chief statistician, said on the study's release in October.

``It's not true (your kids are) doomed for life if you're a single parent or you're poor. You have a big chance of not doing well, but being a positive parent is a far bigger factor.''

Thousands of parents take prenatal classes but most of them would never think of taking a parenting course, Fellegi said.

Kim Swigger, a parent of two children, aged 7 and 10, and school council chairperson at Sir Samuel B. Steele junior public school, calls the idea of licensing parents ``extreme.''

``It's a simplistic approach to a really complicated problem,'' says Swigger, a former public health nurse. ``It implies that passing some kind of test will guarantee a certain level of performance. I don't think you can apply that to parenting.''

Mary Gordon, administrator of parenting programs for the Toronto District School Board, says the state should be in ``the parent-enabling business, not the licensing business.''

It would be far more effective to give people, in a non-threatening and non-judgmental way, information that they could filter through their own value systems, she says.

Bob Glossop, co-ordinator of programs and research at the Vanier Institute of the Family, doesn't dismiss Covell and Howe's concerns. But he'd caution against any mandatory measures that suggest all parents are ill-equipped.

``The majority of parents are not falling down in doing their jobs,'' says Glossop. ``Most parents are deeply committed to doing their best.''

The issue of licensing parents arises every few years, Glossop says, but never seems to get very far.

``My sense is that the majority would not welcome that kind of intrusive involvement of the state.''

Glossop acknowledges that many parents today feel stressed and could use some form of educational support. Society has changed, yet many people simply parent as they were parented.

Glossop suggests a major public awareness campaign might help to prepare prospective parents for the awesome changes and responsibilities they'll face.

``I respect the concern out of which the (licensing) suggestion is raised,'' Glossop says. ``We need enhanced parenting skills.''

But certification goes too far.

``I'm not sure I even understand how licensing could be effectively introduced,'' Glossop says.

Who would set the standards and what would be the sanctions for those in violation?

Regrettably, many parents shy away from parenting courses, thinking they don't need them or that it might make them stand out in an unfavourable way, Shapiro says.

Having mandatory instruction might remove the hesitancy.

After all, ``if you're going to have the job, you ought to be serious about it and be trained at it,'' Shapiro says.

Although Shapiro doesn't have a problem with the concept of licensing, he says it's a non-starter.

Licensing is an authoritarian response to the deeply troubling issues of abuse and neglect, Gordon says.

``Knowledge and empathy will enhance positive parenting, appropriate and joyful parenting, much more than any silly licence will,'' she says.

``Children who are parented well bring so much to the world.''

Helping to educate parents about the stages of child development and other basic health and welfare issues should be at least as important as our efforts to support the environment, she says.

``When we gave people information and support, they bought into (home and office) recycling programs. That's the way to go, rather than the Big Brother way,'' she says.

David Ablett is a member of The Star's editorial board.

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