Toronto Star

October 16, 1999

Child policy doubletalk won't help kids

Michele Landsberg
Toronto Star

WE'RE ALL guilty of child policy doubletalk. All of us in the scribbling trade who write about children keep falling into the same trap: we crank up the bond-trader rhetoric, we trundle out the criminal-justice bluster.

Children are an investment, we say. Pay now or risk declining returns later. Increase the value of your (human) stock by value-added programs; the economic profits will come rolling in.

Pony up for day care and more resources, others of us threaten, or you'll find yourself at the pointy end of a knife in some parking lot one dark night, at the mercy of a pierced and tattooed teen who didn't get enough love and orange juice.

As the Chrétien government does fancy footwork on a ``children's agenda'' in its new budget, and the Harris regime fails to respond to the child care crisis, we're bound to hear ever more plaintive public cries about ``investing now or paying more later.''

Why do we do it? Not one of us who raised children, with enormous effort, trouble and pains, did it as an ``investment.'' We weren't banking love in hopes of compound interest. We weren't making intellectual down payments on future honours degrees.

We raised our children as best we could out of sheer devotion to their well-being.

Why, then, do we resort to the language of the stock market when making our public plea for better child and family resources? I guess we do it because we feel we're talking to men (and some women) in power who don't care about children as human beings. We want to woo them by using their own sterile language and appealing to their own materialistic values.

I think we make a serious mistake when we use language inauthentically. We don't really believe that a child is a promissory note. And those who inhabit an emotional desert of profit and loss calculations aren't about to be moved by our pose of sharing their assumptions.

Children are a ``hot'' topic right now. Both federal and provincial governments are trying to capitalize on the public's unease about the well-being of children in our smash-and-grab culture. Chrétien dangles vague promises while making it clear that there will be no universally accessible day care, and Harris boasts about ``early childhood development'' initiatives, while distancing himself from anything real.

Harris did have something substantive in hand: he had Fraser Mustard and Margaret McCain's Early Years Study. What that report showed was that love, nurture and brain development are inseparable, and the preschool years are critical. Not only that, but we have a brilliant example right here in Toronto of how we can, as a society, help all children achieve their full potential. The Toronto District School Board's 34 parenting and family literacy centres - warmly welcoming, informal centres in neighbourhood schools - are admired and emulated around the world. Mothers, fathers, babysitters and grandparents can drop in daily with their infants or toddlers for stories, games, toy-lending, crafts, group play, songs, multilingual books - and lots of support for parents learning the importance of stimulus and emotional responsiveness.

Couple those programs with high-quality day care, available and affordable for all working parents, and you have the ideal foundation for a vigorous society.

Dream on, as the young would say. The Harris government, like the wolf in granny's nightgown, remains its own hairy, unregenerate self under the pastel disguise of election promises. Margaret Marland, Harris's minister responsible for children (hah!), recently explained to the media that ``the government believes that child care and child development are unconnected. These are separate issues,'' she said.

That's beyond embarrassing; it's idiotic. Think about it for a moment: surely Margaret Marland understands, even if her government doesn't, that nurture and development are inseparable in a child's first years. Have these people even read the Mustard-McCain report? Instead of acting on its straightforward recommendations, the government is whiffling on about a few ``demonstration projects'' in some conveniently Tory ridings.

Enough nonsense. We already know what children and their families need. The evidence, the examples, the proofs have all been marshalled by every prominent social agency, non-profit group and policy think tank in Canada, excluding (of course) the most rabidly right-wing. If governments are still refusing to act on that collective wisdom, then at least we know what their real values are, and we can stop trying to ape their dessicated and soul-shrivelling vocabulary.

Those who care about children because they are children, and because this is our community, will have to start thinking about a social revolution.

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