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Building Healthy Child Development: The Experiences of Parents in Peel – A study by the Peel Children and Youth Initiative (PCYI)


I Introduction
II Methods
III Key Findings: Preliminary Research Questions
IV Next Steps for the Research
V Other Research and Resources

-submitted by Dr. Dana Wilson

I Introduction

Parents play an absolutely critical role in the health, well-being, and the long-term success of their children. The support parents receive – both formal and informal – directly influences their parenting behaviours, their knowledge of child development, and their confidence as a parent. Evidence suggests that parents who are socially supported are more likely to participate in community programs and the range of developmental experiences that are a critical part of healthy child outcomes. Most of the research in this area, however, comes from studies among select groups of parents (e.g., low income or single parents, teen moms, parents connected with specific programs).

The Peel Children and Youth Initiative (PCYI) and its partners wanted to further explore this area in order to better understand the connection between social support and formal supports for the large majority of parents in a given population, namely all parents in Peel Region. Speaking to all types of parents was essential to PCYI to provide an accurate and representative picture of all parents – those actively engaged in services and those who are not. Speaking to parents directly builds on PCYI’s tradition of consulting the families, children, and youth in Peel, with the belief that a careful study about the experiences of ordinary parents can help to inform the way that community organizations and agencies support them. To address this knowledge gap in Peel, PCYI embarked on a comprehensive population-based study in 2011-2012 that examined the interests and experiences of parents with young children (ages 0-12) from across Peel Region.

II Methods

The study consisted of a 26-item survey and was modeled after a national study conducted by the Invest in Kids Foundation and examined the types of supports parents rely on, including informal supports, such as help and advice, and more formal supports, including programs and services available to them. The survey assessed what sources of informal support and advice parents rely on; their sense of how important and aware they are of formal supports that are available; the practical challenges and cultural barriers that may limit their participation; and how factors like social support and their experiences with ‘barriers’ actually impact their use of more formal programs and services. The survey also gathered information on key socio-demographic characteristics (i.e., gender, marital status, ethnic backgrounds, and length of time in Canada).

The survey was implemented by the Environics Research Group and a large (n=1,543) stratified random sample of parents from across Peel Region was obtained with a response rate of 61 percent. The data were weighted to the population of Peel and all modeling was done with the weighted sample so that it was representative to all parents in Peel Region. The sample was split and modeled separately for parents of 0-6 year olds and parents of 7-12 year olds. Results from the first stage of analysis were presented in a report launched in October of 2012 titled, Building Healthy Child Development: The Experiences of Parents in Peel.

Results point to broad trends among all parents, however the data reveal that there are few simple or linear relationships. In almost every instance, the responses of parents indicate that there is a “continuum” along which their particular circumstances (e.g., access to support, personal demographics, experience with barriers) will affect whether or not they, and ultimately their children, actually use a particular service or support; and that this in turn is highly influenced by the particular service or support in question. In short, the things that really impact the sorts of formal supports a parent will know about, access, and use – with a few notable exceptions – is quite specific as is detailed in the report.  

III Key Findings: Preliminary Research Questions

Parents with informal support are more engaged
Parents who are already socially supported (e.g., have people they can rely on for a hand and advice with parenting) are much more likely to participate in the developmental opportunities available to them and their children (e.g., formal supports). While not a causal relationship, there is a strong and progressive relationship between informal support and participation of parents, particularly with younger children – the more help you have the more likely you are to be engaged in community supports and programs.  

Parents seek a wide range of informal supports
With some notable exceptions, parents in Peel have a fairly wide range of sources they can turn to when they need help and advice with parenting, and importantly – they are not afraid to ask. Parents look for support and advice in significant numbers from their immediate family (grandparents in particular, after their spouse or partner), and often ask relatives and friends with children for the kinds of informal support all parents need.  

Some places are heavily frequented by parents
Out of the list of 24 different types of formal programs and services available to parents that the survey asked parents about, a number of them are used by almost all parents including libraries, community centres (arenas), and playgrounds and parks. Parents report very few barriers to accessing these supports and use them in significant numbers. This finding suggests that there may be additional ways (e.g., cross-service referrals, co-locations) to use the regular and ongoing presence of parents (and caregivers) in these facilities to enhance parents’ awareness about and enrollment in other services and supports that may not be well known or particularly easy to access (e.g., parenting programs).

Parents value the formal programs and services in their communities
Parents value the formal programs that are available to support them, and quite consistently rate the importance of these services independently of whether they actually use them. In general terms, parents usually find a way to participate in the things they think are important despite the barriers they may experience. There are some exceptions however where parents report participating regularly in services or programs that they seem to undervalue relative to their participation (e.g., libraries, community centres, playgrounds and parks), and other programs are less accessed despite parents placing high value on them (e.g., licensed child care, home visits, parenting classes, after-school and drop-in programs). While this may be a simple ‘supply vs. demand’ issue, further and more specific analysis is required.

Barriers experienced by parents have a unique impact on use of supports
Of the list of reasons that might limit or prevent parents from accessing the range of formal programs and services, the data show that not all barriers have the same impact on actual parent participation. For example, the most frequently cited barriers for all parents (of 0–6 year-olds and 7–12 year-olds) were concerns about concerns about quality (>47%), cost (>40%), pre-registration (>39%), and time of day (>39%). Barriers that have the greatest impact on the likelihood of a parent accessing formal supports however differ from the most cited barriers, and vary between parents of younger children (0–6 years) and parents of older children (7–12 years). The barriers ‘difficulties with the registration process’, ‘time of day’, and ‘not interested in what is available’ have the greatest impact on parents of younger children accessing formal supports, while ‘not interested in what is available’, ‘too expensive’, and ‘concerns about quality’ have the greatest impact on parents of older children accessing formal supports.

Equitable participation among mothers and fathers
It is worth noting that, with only minor differences, the data show that fathers in Peel are very equal partners in the parenting process, who look for advice from a range of sources and access quite a number of informal supports when they need help.  Fathers have told us, however, that they have different reasons for not engaging in community services and programs, most of which are related to how they feel when they do engage (e.g., social barriers), compared to the more practical barriers that affect the participation of mothers.     

A ‘diversity lens’ is essential to understanding parents in Peel
The data also revealed a critical finding, that ethnicity and immigrant status, and particularly the interaction of these two characteristics, such as newcomer South Asian parents or Canadian-born European parents, are more important determinants of parents’ experiences of formal and informal supports than any other socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., gender, marital status, income) assessed in the study. This finding reemphasizes how vital a diversity lens is in understanding the needs and interests of parents, particularly in the diverse Region of Peel.

IV Next Steps for the Research

The report presents a first look at the data and further analysis is being conducted to address additional research questions. PCYI is committed to making this work accessible and sharing the findings as PCYI believes that the effort will only be worthwhile if the sectors, services, and community members who work to support parents with young children consider the work to be useful – and actually use it in their ongoing efforts to serve families. As such, PCYI has embarked on an ambitious dissemination strategy, including:

Presentations and outreach activities to key partners in the community around what the data show for particular sectors:

For more information about this study, please contact the Research Manager, Dr. Dana Wilson, at

The Peel Children and Youth Initiative (PCYI, is a non-profit organization established in 2011 with the mandate to work collaboratively with the community (government, corporate and non-profit partners) to ensure that all children and youth have the opportunity to reach their potential as they grow from infancy (0) through to young adulthood (24). PCYI serves as a back-bone organization for Peel Region to improve service outcomes for children and youth (0–24) in Peel by improving policy, practice and system changes through research, evaluation and policy development.

V Other Research and Resources

Crill Russell, C., Birnbaum, N., Avison, W., Palmina I. 2011. Vital Communities, Vital Support: How well do Canada’s communities support parents of young children? Phase 2 Report: What parents tell us. Invest in Kids Foundation. Toronto, ON. 94 pages. Available at

Birnbaum, N., Crill Russell, C., Clyne, G. 2007. Vital Communities, Vital Support: How well do Canada’s communities support parents of young children? Phase 1 Report: What is known. Invest in Kids Foundation. Toronto, ON. 55 pages. Available at

McCain, M.N., Mustard, J.F., McCuaig, K. 2011. Early Years Study 3: Making decisions, taking action. Margaret & Wallace McCain Family Foundation. Toronto, ON. 115 pages. Available at


Peel Children and Youth Initiative Report

Peel Public Health website includes information and resources on a variety of health topics: