June 29, 2015

Although society may change the shape of the family, "children have the same exact needs you had when you were children," said the founder of a program designed to help young children learn how to empathize with others.

The first relationship, that of a mother with an infant affects the rest of the child's life, said Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy.

"We screw up the family and we have to create a whole host of organizations to deal with the outcome."

Gordon was one of several speakers at a June 10-11 conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Vanier Institute of the Family. About 300 people attended.

All children need to "have a sense of belonging" and to be surrounded by unconditional love, she said.

Coming from "a very Catholic" extended family in Newfoundland, Gordon said her mother welcomed everyone to the family table, from the unwed mother to the drunk just released from jail.

She experienced a lot of love in her home, and was taught that everyone was a step away from having a hard time. Consequently, she learned that people experiencing hard times should not be treated as if it is their fault.

"The family should be cherished and not blamed and shamed."

Jean-Christophe Demers said love "as a feeling" has become prevalent in defining the postmodern family.

The shift from more traditional notions of family was "extremely brutal," Demers said.

The quest for self-realization and changes in gender roles have created new forms of social ties and new forms of work. Globalization and economic pressures are also having an impact, he said.

Family ties are activated according to preferences, he said, but "that makes relationships subject to change."

The family has shifted from being an institution geared to producing children and caring for them, to being one based on relationships that further each person's self-identity.


Seeing the family in this plastic way – as always subject to change – means that a few decades from now families might not even be defined in terms of love, he said.

Gov. Gen. Georges and Pauline Vanier founded the Vanier Institute in 1965 as a non-religious institute to help social scientists understand the family so as to better support it. The Catholic couple are being considered for sainthood.

Peter Tilley, a single father of a 19-year old daughter, is executive director of The Ottawa Mission, an outreach to homeless people.


Most people the mission serves come from "broken" families. "Most are no longer in touch with their families," he said. Many have mental health and addiction issues.

Tilley sees bonds form among the homeless, who then look out for each other.

When a homeless person goes into hospice care and the mission contacts the families, "it's amazing how fast people want to reconnect," he said.

Sometimes they'll take mats to sleep on the floor of their family member's room, through a "desire to understand and to get closure."

These might be "families without love, trying to figure out what went wrong and how to bring it together," Tilley said.