By Vagdevi Meunier, Psy.D.
A child is playing ball with her father in the backyard with great excitement and joy because she is the center of his attention and sees him enjoying their game. Minutes later the child takes a wild swing and ball flies way outside the father’s reach and falls down in a ditch with a steep bank. The steep slope as well as the rocks and thorny bushes will make any retrieval operation a safety challenge.
The young girl is crestfallen but still self-assured. “You didn’t catch the ball that time, Daddy”, she says with a hint of accusation. Then she begins to move towards the ditch to retrieve the ball. This is the pivotal moment in the dynamic. Will the father let his young daughter brave the hazards of the ditch to retrieve that ball by herself? The father’s next move has great significance even though the moment itself may not seem all that momentous. That is because the father’s choices here will reveal whether he is caring or caretaking.
One strategy will teach his daughter to trust her own instincts, to ask for help but not become dependent or passive, and to express her own voice with confidence while the other might disempower her, cause her to lose confidence in herself, doubt her own abilities, and choose to suppress her voice rather than speak it with courage. Let’s examine each of the choices to see what emerges as the wiser action to take. While one interaction might not be impactful, it is through hundreds or thousands of such small interactions that the child learns something about herself and the world, and develops a core set of beliefs about self, other, and relationship.
What is Caretaking?
When we think of the word ‘caretaking’, images of invalids and the elderly come to mind along with a compassionate person who is taking care of their needs. That is not the only place that caretaking occurs. In every loving relationship whether it is between two adults in a romantic relationship, a parent and child, or even close friends, we face the possibility of becoming caretakers in small and big moments.
A caretaker is someone who is motivated by love and concern to help those they love. However their motivation leads them to want to take away pain, fix problems, and eliminate suffering from their loved ones life. They see their own spiritual journey in terms of being there for someone in such a way that their loved one is taken care of physically, emotionally, and maybe even spiritually. Caretaking is about selfless caring but it may also lead to self-sacrifice and compassion fatigue in the caretaker, because it puts the burden on the person giving care and disempowers the person receiving it.
There are times when caretaking is absolutely necessary. When a baby is born, it is completely dependent on its parents to provide all the care, remove all hazards, and make sure it survives with no danger to its wellbeing or emotional health. Similarly there may be adults in need of caretaking when they are not in a position to care for themselves.
However in the example at the beginning, the young healthy child playing with her father, caretaking may be an unhelpful response from the parent. What would caretaking look like here?
As soon as the ball fell down a steep slope, and he noticed his daughter moving towards the ditch, the father might raise his voice and firmly say “Stop!” He might tell the child (with genuine concern for her safety), “the ditch and the bushes are too dangerous. You are too young and you might get hurt climbing down that steep bank so stay right there and I will go get the ball”.
Why is this not a helpful response? It sounds like a genuinely loving thing to do, right?
First of all, the child is likely to experience an emotional let down when he shouts. She may even mistake his anxiety for anger and assume she did something wrong. What was once a playful exciting interaction with her father is now filled with tension. Second, what she may read in his explanation is that the world is full of danger, that she is incompetent to navigate it, and that she is dependent on him to take care of her. While some of this is true, the true danger here is that she loses confidence in herself and shrinks away from seeking to find her own footing, both literally and metaphorically. If she experiences this enough times, she may grow into adulthood with some enduring insecurity.
What does Caring look like?
Caring on the other hand is about supporting someone without taking away their ability to express themselves. Caring is about being there without necessarily doing anything unless invited to help.
In the ball game example, a caring response from the father would empower the child while still protecting her. Here is how the dialogue would go when the ball falls down the steep rocky bank.
“Uh-Oh, sweetie, that ball fell way down there. What do you think we should do?”
“I want to go get the ball, I like that ball”.
“I don’t want you to get hurt trying to get the ball. What do we do about the steep bank and the rocks and bushes?”
“I know what we can do. You go down there first but don’t touch the ball. I will come behind you and you can catch me if I fall”.
Now they have a game plan and they do it together. In this version of the scenario, there is no tension, the child has participated in the decision-making, and the feeling of togetherness is preserved. The father doesn’t ignore the dangers or put her at risk, but invites her to consider the safest way to retrieve the ball with him and the child learns to coordinate her thoughts and actions with his. The child does not learn to fear the world, she learns that she has the ability to tackle difficult situations but can ask for help. Most importantly, she learns that her voice is not only allowed but valued. She also learns to take a risk but in a safe container (in this case with her father close by). With hundreds of little experiences such as these with her parents, the child grows up knowing herself, valuing herself, and not feeling disempowered. She also learns that other people are valuable resources for information and help and that reaching out to them increases her sense of connection.
This distinction between caretaking and caring is not one that is taught in most homes or schools. Most of us learn that parents and teachers (and later bosses) are in charge and they will tell us what to do or what is safe. We learn to either challenge authority or succumb to it. People who grow up with caretaking parents are more likely to give in, become dependent, or allow others to take over. Caretaking becomes taking “power over” another in adult relationships. Caring on the other hand sends the message that each of us has a voice or position that deserves recognition and that healthy dependency means having “power with” someone.
Vagdevi Meunier, Psy.D., Master Trainer for the Gottman Institute and National Marriage Seminars and Licensed Clinical Psychologist, has been a Certified Gottman Therapist and Workshop Leader since 2006. She is the founder of the Austin-based Center for Relationships (@ctr4relships). Follow her on Facebook at the Center for Relationships and on Twitter @VagdeviCGT.