The Stolen Child Project

Loreena McKennitt


The Falstaff Family Centre invites you to the discussion

By Loreena McKennitt

In 1985 I was asked to put the poem, The Stolen Child to music. This evocative poem, by the notable Irish poet, WB Yeats, whose childhood came in the late 19th century, is rich with the ramblings and imagery of a childhood intoxicated by the wild and sensual beauty of the west coast of Ireland. It has been, by far, one of my most favourite poems.

And yet, in recent years, the poem has started to shift in its meaning for me, particularly with respect to contemporary childhood. Do children experience anything like this anymore?  Especially in this time of connection technologies?

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Since then, we have seen extraordinary things happen as a result of this 20th-century innovation. Yet, like many inventions, it also has a darker side.

Smartphones, tablets and computers have since swept into our homes, our businesses and our lives like a digital tsunami, often without a full appreciation of their long term consequences or when and where they are best used responsibly. We have assumed that because school boards and ministries of education have endorsed them and woven them into our educational systems, that they must be wholly beneficial.

And yet, in many cases, children, families, schools and communities have been blindsided, particularly as children and youth have fallen prey to the seductive and addictive nature of many of these devices, only to feel the brunt of their anti-social dimensions in relation to things like bullying or suicide. 

Now, after 20 or so years of this digital experiment, research is finally coming forward as to what it may be doing to our children and our families, and many questions arise. What, if any, are the risks to child development, family life and the community in general – now and into the future? How can we, as citizens and family members, regain a position of influence in how our homes, schools and communities should be shaped, particularly as it pertains to connection technologies and our children?

Indeed we, like a growing number of communities, feel the time is right to have a public discussion.

Through my role as the owner and director of the Falstaff Family Centre (Stratford, Camada) we will be exploring this topic through The Stolen Child Project.

I would invite you to share our road of exploration so that we might connect you with some others who are experts in their fields and who are asking tough questions. They may also offer us some food for thought on how best to position technology in our lives – and the lives of our children. I can assure you, there are many other pilgrims who are well down the road ahead of us and who too are seeking some of the explanations we are.

It may give you enough inspiration to pose questions to others in your community.

Our children and their future deserve nothing less.

~ LM


Share your thoughts

Whether you are parents, grandparents, educators, child development experts, family counsellors, members of the clergy or concerned citizens in general – we invite you to share your thoughts,  experiences and helpful suggestions.



Reading Corner


Man Interrupted Man Interrupted
Philip Zimbardo
Smartest Kids In The World The Smartest Kids In The World
Amanda Ripley
Finnish Lessons Finnish Lessons
Pasi Sahlsberg
Boys Adrift Boys Adrift
Dr. Leonard Sax
Girls On The Edge Girls On The Edge
Dr. Leonard Sax



Hold On To Your Kids
Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate
The Collapse of Parenting The Collapse of Parenting
Dr. Leonard Sax
The Collapse of Parenting The Collapse of Parenting
Kim John Payne


Lights Out Lights Out
Ted Koppel



The Shallows
Nicholas Carr
The Glass Cage
Nicholas Carr
The Revenge Of Analog The Revenge of Analog
David Sax


Happy City
Charles Montgomery



The Tipping Point
Malcolm Gladwell



A Short HIstory Of Progress A Short History of Progress
Ronald Wright



The Attention Merchants The Attention Merchants
Tim Wu



1984 1984
George Orwell
The Handmaid"s Tale Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood




Listening Corner

Ideas Disposable Youth
August 2015
TEDx Robin Dunbar:
Can the internet buy you more friends?
April, 2012
Sunday Edition In the Valley of the Kings
an Ira Basen documentary

February, 2015
BBC News Stephen Hawking warns artifical intelligence could end mankind
December 2014



Is the 21st century child lost in a wilderness of technology?

DOWNLOAD in PDF (233kb)

The following was derived from a speech Loreena gave as RCAF Honorary Colonel at a fundraising dinner in February 2016 for the Winnipeg Military Family Resource Centre. It was called Family, Home and the Village.

I know I’m not the only one to consider my life as a journey. And I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that I am pretty lucky to have been born where and when I was. This is especially true in the face of the speed, scale and tempo of changes we’ve seen in the 21st century – changes that are literally redefining our role as a species on this planet.

When I think about human beings from an anthropological viewpoint and accept that we are not drawn to large, quick, relentless change, I wonder how much more can we take and where we’re all headed.

Like many things, it is sometimes hard to put a finger on that ‘aha moment’ –when one sits up and takes notice like no other time before. This process of connecting the dots is interesting, but unremarkable until the parts become a whole and that powerful summation shakes you to the core.

Such a matter for me is connection technologies and their effect on humanity and the human village. And it begins with our children.

I think of our First Nation’s people who look back seven generations and then forward seven generations before settling on a plan. I think of Ronald Wright’s book, A Short History of Progress, which reminds us that "every time history repeats itself, the price goes up." And it is from this anthropological point of distance and time that I have begun my own journey of examination: why in this 21st century are we so severely challenged to define exactly what family and friendship mean?


The changing human ‘village’

I am reminded of an inspiring lecture by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, called Can The Internet Buy You More Friends?

When speaking to a group of young people, Professor Dunbar challenges their concept of friends as defined by Facebook. A large part of his professional research has focused on what determines the most desirable group size for mammals, including us! He identified the ratio between the neo-cortex –the site of our highest brain functions– and the ‘group size’ that makes for the best social relationships.

For dogs, the ideal pack size was about 50. For elephants the preferred herd size was larger still. For humans, the ideal group was roughly 150 – the size of an English or Tuscan village. This principle is now widely referred to as the ‘Dunbar number’ and Malcom Gladwell captures this fascinating fact about the ideal human group size in his best selling book The Tipping Point.

When I read the book my mind immediately went back to my formative years in Morden, Manitoba in the 1960s and ‘70s.

In addition to my parents and both sets of grandparents, there were aunts and uncles and close family friends. We shared meals together, especially traditional Sunday dinners. We met at various social gatherings, at variety nights, dances and skating. As kids we had paper routes and the run of the town – and were told not to come home until the street lights came on. The concept of a ‘play date’ would have been as foreign to us as Mars.

The milkman lived with his family just down the street and many a morning my childhood slumber would be jostled by the tinkle of the milk bottles on our step as the streets and town life slowly awakened. We would walk to school and back every day. Our parents knew our teachers. Our teachers knew our parents. Both our home and our school sang from the same song sheet when it came to discipline, attendance and the curriculum. The teachers lived in the community and we’d see them at the grocery store or at church.

As Robin Dunbar explains, this kind of village for the human species was comfortable, secure and accountable. Everyone had a vested interest in knowing the other people and in helping out wherever they could. Even though there were fewer financial and technological resources then, there was a strong social cohesion with our neighbours and the village. The primal urge to ‘look after their own’ took over. The proverbial adage ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ was more or less alive, well and intact.

But where are these communities today? Have we lost them? Is it possible to create them again?


Urban design and the rise of consumer culture

Award-winning Canadian writer Charles Montgomery looks at these issues in his fascinating book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. He refers to extensive research into the psychological impact of architecture and urban design. He points out that at various stages along the way, and more recently in the 1970s and ‘80s, the design of towns and cities in North America has turned away from the village.

The dominance of the car became prevalent, he explains, as we started to experiment with different modalities of living. The vast development and suburban model took hold. By the 1980s, gone were the corner stores, local post office, and the sidewalks that used to lead us to and from work, school, places of worship and the various destinations that facilitated our connectedness.

Car culture came to dominate. Day-to-day human contact was significantly reduced, as life became (supposedly) easier and more convenient.

And yet it wasn’t just architecture or urban design that changed in the 1980s. According to clinical psychiatrist Dr. Gordon Neufeld and childhood development expert Dr. Gabor Maté in their ground-breaking book Hold Onto Your Kids, there was also a fundamental change in the way parents related to their children.

Neufeld and Matéargue that in the context of the clinical terms of attachment and bonding which children have always had with their parents, grandparents and extended family, this attachment started to become unmoored around the end of the Second World War, coinciding with the advent of television. This early introduction of mass media, which included Leave it to Beaver, also brought sophisticated marketing for all manner of things, including addictive substances like cigarettes and sugar-laced foods. (1.)

Now it wasn’t just the family and the village which had children’s attention. Gone were the days when children tasted the raw edge of boredom and had to use their own imaginations and creative energies to entertain themselves. Parents and families, not equipped with media analysis training, got a sharp taste of the media invasion and all that came with it – and which continues to grow to this day.

Professor Henry Giroux of McMaster University argues that the very nature of youth, so often spoken of as ‘our future’ is being changed as they are being “carpet-bombed with consumer culture.”


Leisure time, screen time and medical concerns

In this age of disruptive technologies which has given us such terms as ‘digital dementia’ and ‘nature deficit disorder’, I hear so many parents and families lament that they don’t know what has hit them or their children. Vital person-to-person communications skills are in danger. For girls these ‘skills’ have come primarily through the instant and perpetual ‘connectedness’ provided by their 24/7 smartphones.

(See the CNN documentary Being Thirteen)

For boys, its particularly the Xbox and other gaming devices offering hours of so-called ‘playtime’ via a screen filled with heavy violent images (see Boys Adrift or The Collapse of Parenting, by Dr. Leonard Sax).

Parents are struggling with how to sort the good from the bad and how to understand cause and effect when it comes to self-esteem, mental health, suicide and bullying.

Experts across a broad spectrum of professions are speaking out with great concern, be they clinical psychiatrists, paediatricians, optometrists or medical doctors. They speak of afflictions involving vision, sleep, Type 2 diabetes, attention deficit disorder and even endocrine system problems, which can determine so much of our human development.

As Dr. Aric Sigman points out in his 2013 report to the European Union, “this is not a cultural conversation about how children spend their leisure time” but rather, “...screen time has become a medical issue.” 


Technology in schools: help or hindrance?

Unfortunately, many experts looking at the darker side of these technologies say they’re not being heard or given standing in the community. Manywarn that the most significant and alarming fact, which is being lost in the ether, is that many of these devices are highly addictive.

Some argue that school boards and ministries of education have become main proponents of this high-tech approach to education and hence enablers in the disruption of family life.

  • Teachers lament that they are forced to learn and incorporate the various technologies into the classroom and into the curriculum, (often without proper instruction themselves) only to sometimes abandon them;
  • or that they can’t compete with the action figures children are consuming during off-hours;
  • or that there’s not a companion curriculum to educate and warn students and families about the perils of the internet, which include pornography, fraud, cyber-hacking and bullying.

Many small neighbourhood schools, which were once part of village life, have closed in the name of efficiencies, only for children to be bussed long distances, armed with their Smartphones as ways of now staying ‘connected’ with the parents who used to walk them to school.

School boards themselves have become mammoth operations which many parents find impenetrable and who, one worries, may be listening more to Microsoft and Apple, instead of the growing body of research being compiled in this enormous digital experiment.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s most recent report on technologies in schools, for example, concluded that more technology does not necessarily mean better learning.

The report points out that “even countries which have invested heavily in information communication technologies have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results for math, science and reading.”

Indeed, an alternative to this phenomena can be witnessed in various Waldorf/Steiner schools around the world, which have made the conscious decision to delay the introduction of any connection technologies until Grade 8. These schools have gone on to produce graduates who have become Nobel Laureates, the CEO of American Express, a prime minister of Norway and employees of IT companies.

I can’t help but wonder what the average school board’s IT budget might be used for instead.

So if one pulls back and looks at this from the anthropological standpoint as Drs. Neufeld and Mate are doing, we are to understand that for the first time in human history and since the advent of mass media and connection technologies, we are now witnessing the complete migration of children’s attachment. That attachment, formerly with their parents, has been transferred to their peers. If that is indeed the case, we now have children raising children.


Feel-good words and the power of the tech titans

So where do these technologies come from and who is behind the Silicon Valley’s Kool-Aid? In Ira Basen’s radio documentary, In The Valley of the Kings, he pulls back the curtain on Silicon Valley’s latest gift to the world, the ‘sharing economy’, and its disarming language of ‘friend’, ‘like’, ‘connection’, ‘community’, ‘do your own thing’, and ‘making the world a better place’. Some would say they’re in the business of co-opting the language of the village yet delivering nothing but loneliness and alienation.

Basen also says that when you look past these feel-good words, you get a glimpse of what is really in store – a future where tech wizards, not governments, make the rules. I am reminded of this when I see the photo ops, as I did recently during the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland. In amongst the democratically-elected members of our western nations are the tech titans from Silicon Valley, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. We are definitely living in a different permutation of democracy now.

(You might also like to hear CBC’s Sunday Edition What’s Not to Like about Facebook?)

This is the industry which brags about their ‘disruptive innovations,’ or as companies such as Uber like to put it, their ‘principled confrontation of the law’. And what of those that invite their relatively few female employees, who envision having families one day, to defer that life goal into their forties since the company will pay to freeze their eggs as part of their benefit package?

Some days it feels like we’re in a bad science fiction movie crossed with George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. One also wonders if we’re like the frog in the boiling water – we won’t know what’s happened to us until it’s too late.

At a time when Mark Zuckerburg is discussing a brave new world of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, the great scientist Stephen Hawking has urged a slowdown of this technological ‘Star Wars’ until we can take stock and plot out together where we want to go from here. He, along with Tesla founder Elon Musk, warn that artificial intelligence “is the human species’ biggest existential risk”.

(Centre for the Study of Existential Risk


Unfettered technology and the impact on families

In his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr says the human brain, the organ needed to navigate through all the challenges of our time, is not only under attack, but is already in the process of changing its very physiology.

Still, there is no doubt that many of our technological advances have had great merit – and I use many of them. I drive a car, I use a computer and it’s highly likely you’re able to read this because of the internet.

And yet connection technologies alone have pushed further and faster than laws and governments around the world have been able to keep up with. And that includes the areas of privacy, fraud, pornography, copyright and cyber-security. In the absence of public discourse and informed consent, these technologies have pushed and continue to push our society – and especially our families – to the brink.

When you look at the range of challenges youth and their families now experience, be it bullying, or vulnerability to radicalization, you quickly realize there’s a catastrophe looming in contemporary family life. Unfettered technology has changed our village, our way of life, our childhood.

Most childhood experts and paediatricians will agree that children and the human species thrive and develop their capacities and capabilities in settings where there is:

  • unconditional love, bonding and attachment
  • a place which provides a sense of security and safety
  • a place that provides continuity, routine, consistency, and predictability which comes with the rhythm and structures of a well-balanced daily life – but not a life of constant change. We can and in fact have adapted to change, but on a very slow and long-term basis. And yet, many argue that the increasing number of changes families now encounter in daily life is not a sustainable way to live.

Robin Dunbar, and many others who’ve studied humans as a species, recognize that we’ve been given a physiological and psychological budget and that there is a sweet spot in which we operate. If we live beyond that budget there are consequences.

So if we, as a species, thrive in a kind of ‘village-like setting’ how does one bring that back to family life in this day and age?

Perhaps the answer is ‘together’. By helping each other. By helping to create a supportive, sustaining village of shared interests and worthwhile goals.

If so, it must begin with us.


Playing a role in our digital direction

In the face of this sweeping digital experiment, perhaps we need not adopt the determinist language of the high-tech world which often says the future ‘will’ be this or that. Perhaps we challenge the idea that we better get on board so we’re not left behind. Maybe we confront the notion that we have no choice in the matter.

Instead, we can demand a role in a robust analyses of the benefits and the detriments of connection technologies. Perhaps we can strive for a fair and democratic process of consensus in deciding what should and should not be used – and when and by whom – especially when it comes to our children.

Perhaps those of you who knew life before these digital times should be reminded not to denigrate yourselves just because you can’t manage a Smartphone as well as your 5-year-old grandchild can. But rather be mindful that technological aptitude does not equate to the knowledge and wisdom one gains over a lifetime. That is what’s needed more than ever as we navigate our way through these uncharted times.

Loreena McKennitt


  1. Bonding, as Frank G. Bolton, Jr.explains in When Bonding Fails, is a unidirectional process that begins in the biological parent – primarily the motherduring pregnancy – and continues through birth and the first few days of life. It is the parent’s instinctive desire to protect the infant. Attachment takes more time and more interaction between parent and child. It is a reciprocal process that develops during the first year they are together and is solidified throughout the relationship. It is the development of a mutual feeling that the other is irreplaceable (as quoted from Raising Adopted Children, by Lois Ruskai Melina)