A Child's Age and Stage of Development Make a Difference

By Senator Landon PearsonFootnote 1

Preface

When their parents separate, children's lives are changed forever. The responsibility of parents and family members as well as the professionals who engage with them, is to make that change as smooth as possible. Children have the right to be looked after, and to be protected from violence and undue emotional stress. They also have the right to maintain relationships that are important to them and to have their own voices heard. Only when these and all the other rights that are guaranteed to them by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are respected, will children be able to accept and adjust well to the new circumstances in which they find themselves. This chapter, which focuses on appropriate responses to children's ages and development stages, is designed to assist everyone involved in the process of parental separation to make decisions that are truly in the children's best interests. However, while the chapter's overall content is comprehensive and should prove very useful, there are certain aspects of children's lives in transition that, from my personal experience both as a long time child advocate and as co-chair of the Special Joint Parliamentary Committee on Child Custody and Access I believe require further attention so that we won't make mistakes.

First of all, I would like to emphasize that it is very important at every age for a child to feel that his or her voice has been heard and taken into account. Children find that their choices about how or with whom to spend their time on a daily basis are constrained when their families break up. It will be a good deal easier to make their living and other arrangements palatable to children if they have the opportunity to express their opinion about what really matters to them. How to arrange for this to happen will vary enormously according to the circumstances and to a child's age and maturity but even very young children know when attention has really been paid to what they might have to say.

Secondly it has become clear to me through research and direct experience that children often manifest what may appear to be inappropriate aggressive or sexualized behaviour when they are stressed by parental conflict and, unless it is properly understood, this may lead, in turn, to inappropriate and possibly harmful responses from adults. Much as we might wish it were otherwise, we, in North America, are living today in a violent and highly sexualized culture to which children and young people have easy access through the electronic media. This only serves to heighten their sensitivity to the tensions that surround them and they may need help at every stage of development to direct their confused but powerful emotions into constructive channels. I have particular concern about serious fights among siblings, which may be the result of undirected anger against their parents. Violence against a brother or a sister can cause deeper wounds than schoolyard aggression and can have familial consequences that persist for a lifetime.

A third aspect of contemporary children's lives to which we must pay attention if we wish to be helpful is the interaction between popular culture and child development. What I mean by this is while there is consensus among scientists that human development trajectories in childhood follow similar patterns across cultures, the cultures themselves are constantly shifting, especially the popular cultures. In the new electronic age these changes are almost as rapid as the changes in the media that are transmitting them. The air is densely charged with messages that no child can escape. This is why my five year old grandson, one of whose developmental tasks is to make sense of bodily functions through language, is using words I did not even know existed until I grew up. Or why the music young people listen to on their iPods or the TV shows they watch on their mobile telephones as part of the culture they share with their peers, are framing the language they use in ways that can be extremely challenging for adults. In order to preserve the child's best interest, it is vital that we understand their culture and do not jump to conclusions.

Statistics suggest that the substantial number of children in Canada who experience parental separation is not going to diminish any time soon. As a result, many people will be making decisions about children's lives that will have a profound effect on their growth and development. Children are persons, however, and not objects and the Convention guarantees their right to be heard even though they are not, nor ever should be, parties to divorce proceedings. Our challenge, as concerned adults, is to create the conditions, in which the various modes by which children express themselves can be "listened" to, understood and responded to appropriately. This is the least these children deserve.

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