Across the country, children are providing care for sick parents or grandparents — lifting frail bodies off beds or toilets, managing medication, washing, feeding, dressing, talking with doctors. Schools, social service agencies and health providers are often unaware of those responsibilities because families members may be too embarrassed, or stoic.
Some children develop maturity and self-esteem. But others grow anxious, depressed or angry, sacrifice social and extracurricular activities and miss — or quit — school.
“Our society thinks of children as being taken care of; it doesn’t think of children as taking care of anybody,” said Carol Levine, director of families and health care at United Hospital Fund, a health services organization that studied child caregivers.
As people on the listserv point out, the concept of children as automatically dependents, rather than caretakers, is historically contingent: throughout history children have been in the position of caring for others. Yet in our contemporary culture, we assume that, ideally, children will be cared for not caretaking. As a result, children who are taking on these responsibilities are often invisible to the public at large, at least in public policy and mainstream media discourses.
What is particularly interesting to me about the NYT article is that many of the organizations they profile are not treating child caretakers as automatically being taken advantage of, although they acknowledge the ways children are often ill-equipped to provide care, and the ways in which their own mental and physical health suffers.
The Caregiving Youth Project in Florida offers the most comprehensive approach, holding weekend camps to give children breaks and teach them caregiving skills. It counsels families and conducts classes and meetings in schools.
While I would obviously have to do much more research and reflection before offering an opinion about the efficacy of this approach in terms of the benefit to children and families, my knee-jerk reaction is to believe that meeting kids where they are realistically at (that is, honoring the valuable work they are doing in their families) rather than treating them as potential delinquents or devaluing their caretaking, is generally on the right track. Thoughts?