A young man wearing a white t shirt and black shorts and blue sneakers foes a front flip against an urban park background.

The Beauty of the “Good Enough” Caregiver

Latest News

by Ryan Lane, Director of Children, Youth and Family Services

It’s an understatement to suggest that being a caregiver for a child is an enormous challenge.  So much is asked of someone who is dedicated to the overall health and growth of children in their care, and it can feel overwhelming in the best of times. A lot of times, it can also feel impossible to know the right way to support our children. We can find ourselves striving to be the perfect caregiver and being harsh on ourselves for not getting everything right.

A helpful view that I’ve shared with a lot of caregivers is the notion of being “Good Enough”; seeking a balanced approach to caregiving our children that actually embraces the fact that no caregiver is perfect. 

Imagine for a moment a scale that balances on both sides. This scale represents how to support our children. On one far end of the scale is what we would call ‘abandonment’; not being there for our child when they need us. This can look like a child falling and skinning their knee and needing support, but their caregiver is out of earshot, busy making dinner, etc.

On the other end of the scale is what we would call ‘intrusion’; being there for our child when it’s more helpful for them to experience something on their own.  This can look like not giving our child the space they need to learn through making mistakes through play, like figuring out how Legos can go together or taking the final step towards learning how to balance on a bike. This is sometimes called being a ‘helicopter’ caregiver. 

I use these two extreme examples to highlight that the most helpful answer lies somewhere in between ‘abandonment’ and ‘intrusion’. There is a balance point to be found in any given situation that can also shift over time. When our children are younger or have higher needs, it’s more helpful to be closer to the ‘intrusion’ side of things. For example, we have a toddler learning to walk, and while it’s important that they learn how to physically support themselves, it’s also helpful to offer verbal encouragement as well as make sure they don’t toddle into something dangerous. Also, when they inevitably fall, we pick them right up and support them.

As our children grow and naturally earn trust with us as caregivers, we lean more towards the ‘abandonment’ side of the scale.  If we have a 17 year old who is working a part time job, it’s helpful to know where they are and trust they are doing their best rather than intrude upon their space to see how they’re doing, make sure they are there, etc.

If someone reading this is a caregiver, you may think of several examples of how you have a child of a similar age, and you really need to head in the other direction from what I wrote. It’s absolutely true that different children have different needs at different ages. Some teenagers need more accountability from their caregivers than others, for example. What is support for one child may feel intrusive to another.

Also, notice how I do not use the words “right” or “wrong” when finding that balance point. As our children grow and learn, sometimes very quickly, what can properly support them changes. Staying within those balance points of ‘intrusion’ and ‘abandonment’, the notions of right or wrong are inaccurate. There is simply what it more or less helpful for your child in that moment. 

So, we have this balance point and some guidelines to get there—but how do we make the most helpful choice all the time? That the best part; you don’t.  Let’s look at another example; the fabled “Perfect Caregiver”. This would be a caregiver that supports their child every time they need it and allows their child the space they need to learn every time they need it. This is of course, impossible, and would also be a disastrous result for our children. Why? This is simply because the world is not perfect. People are not perfect. Having a Perfect Caregiver would not prepare them for the world. Experiencing small missteps as a caregiver is an understandable and natural part of the process.

The “Good Enough” caregiver is simply the caregiver that consistently tries, with a lot of emphasis on that word consistently. The goal is that we hit that balance point as often as we can, and we do this through learning from our own mistakes as caregivers and trying to do better next time, and the next, and so on. In this way, our children see us as examples of growth and learning, as well as receive the communication that they are worth every bit of effort we put into supporting them. Being a caregiver for a child is an incredibly difficult path. Choosing to be “good enough” is both a great support to our children, and a great reminder to be kind to ourselves as caregivers. Being a good caregiver is about consistently trying and learning, just like our children.

Related Press