He brings this boy to his counseling appointments every week. He handles middle school pickups, takes the boy back home, and sometimes when there's time, treats him to a bagel at the local bagel shop. He tries to mediate between his grandson's parents; they are too busy fighting to stop and see the pain their son experiences. Yes, "he" is this boy's grandfather.
She brings her six year-old granddaughter to the center every week. Her adult daughter, the mother of this child, suffers from mental illness and is unable to parent the child in a loving, age-appropriate way. To see this six year-old running up to her grandmother, laughing and playing with her, one would never know that the child was almost abandoned before this grandparent intervened.
The National Family Resiliency Center works with countless same-gender couples where one parent is denied access to their child after a separation because the parent hadn't formally adopted them. The severed relationship intensely pains both child and parent.
The lack of protection for non-legalized caregivers' rights has interrupted loving and beneficial relationships between caregivers and children, denied caregivers visitation and custody agreements, and broken children's hearts.
Fortunately, courts are now recognizing the value of non-legalized caregivers in a child's life and are beginning to protect these relationships, up to and including enforcing custody agreements. Why is this important?
Children form attachments to caregivers who attend to their needs, coach them through developmental struggles, and celebrate their achievements. To lose these figures, especially when one or both parents are absent or struggling to care for the child, is devastating and negatively impacts children's growth and future outcomes.
As a therapist directing a center for families in transition and working with a continuum of co-parents, from those who are highly cooperative to those who are highly conflictual, I believe broadening the definition of "parent" is critical. Bravo to the courts from Maryland to New York that are recognizing this. I often hear comments that parents should have to take a competency test before having children.
Since that will never happen, what standards can we expect and attempt to adhere to so that children and genuine caregivers won't have their loving relationships severed?
We like to look at factors that define responsible and competent parenting, such as how parents
foster psychological well-being (examples based on different stages of development). Toddlers need help with developing a sense of competency. Parents can do this by helping them with large and small motor development, and letting them try new things on their own (while providing support or safety interventions).
While teens are so creative and mature in many respects, their ability to evaluate options often needs feedback and guidance from adults. Parents need to discuss their teen's future goals and how they plan to achieve them. Modeling healthy communication and teaching them how to develop discipline and make informed decisions are also essential tasks for parents of teenagers.
How are caregivers involved in formal and informal learning opportunities? For young elementary school students, it might mean going over work coming home in a folder, and expanding knowledge in informal ways such as a walk in the park on a fall day and collecting leaves.
For a middle school child who may be struggling with organization skills and adjusting to a new school, helping a child keep track of assignments and become organized is an important age-appropriate way to support a child.
For an elementary school child, expanding their life outside the home by having them participate in a community activity or sport, or attending birthday parties, gives them a feeling of confidence and opportunities to learn and practice social skills.
For a high school-aged teen, it might mean discussing healthy romantic relationships and friendships, safe sexual practices, and dealing with interpersonal conflicts.
Safety and Security:
For an infant, having a care giver provide medical treatment and informing the co-parent of such treatment and medication is imperative, since the infant has no way to communicate this information.
For a teen, it may be having boundaries and being able to enforce them such as: rules about technology, knowing where the teen is, and being aware of risky behaviors the teens may be exposed to at school, work, or with their peers.
Being a caregiver involves action and accountability. Legal protections are important, but perhaps most important, regardless of the title of caregiver, is the quality of care they provide. What do they do to foster confidence in the child and help the child feel unconditionally loved? Are they teaching the child how to learn, empathize, trust, and exercise decision making skills? Do they model proper behavior in different environments? These parenting-like behaviors can be defined and measured. All of us as parents are responsible. The courts are on to something. We all need to follow-through.
With my best wishes,