When Marc Lawrence became a full-time caregiver for his wife, J, he thought his experiences with parenting and project management would make things easier. He soon discovered that round-the-clock caregiving for an adult differed from anything he’d experienced before.
Marc then thought about the essential attributes caregivers need, and how useful it would be to learn these skills from a young age. Today, he writes about four key skills or traits every caregiver should have, and how he’s doing his best to pass them along to his teenage daughter.
Two years ago, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog post about what characteristics humans need to be better family caregivers. I suggested we could evolve eight arms like an octopus, a large brain like a dolphin, and a flexible neck like an owl. Those would definitely help caregivers with the physical demands of their roles!
Still, given the slow pace of evolution, I don’t expect to see any of these useful physical features emerge during my lifetime. I'm holding out for the next millennium. Here’s my Building a Better Caregiver post if you want to read it.
On a more serious note, while our children won't have eight arms or an owl's neck, we can raise them to have certain transferrable skills. Yes, these skills will help them to be better caregivers, should the need arise, but they're also skills that will help them in all walks of life.
We need to focus more on teaching these skills. Perhaps we expect these traits to form "naturally" over time, or we rely on their schools them things that are far better suited to us as parents.
Today, I want to explore the skills we should teach our children from a young age. See, none of us know if we'll become family caregivers in the future. But with almost a quarter of adults (22.3%) part or full-time caregiving for family and friends in the US, the likelihood is higher than we think. Wouldn't it be better to be prepared? I know I wasn't - even as an adult with several years of experience in the workforce.
Note: I am not a child psychologist or any psychologist. I speak from my experience as a consultant, industry analyst, parent, and family caregiver.
4 essential traits caregivers need (and ones we should teach our children ASAP!)
1. Empathy (obviously)
“Sympathy and empathy both refer to a caring response to the emotional state of another person, but a distinction between them is typically made: while sympathy is a feeling of sincere concern for someone who is experiencing something difficult or painful, empathy involves actively sharing in the emotional experience of the other person.”
- Miriam-Webster Dictionary
Without empathy, we cannot be compassionate about the plight of the person we care for. It’s not about “feeling their pain” – it’s about placing yourself in their situation and anticipating their needs.
Sure, we can follow a schedule and do the "correct" things without empathy. I can say to my wife, J, that, "It's time for dinner," "It's time for a bath," or "It's bedtime." But that's all rather mechanical - and it doesn't consider what she wants.
I visualize and anticipate how my loved one would like to live their day instead of steamrollering and choosing for her. Basic empathy like this, picking up on her facial expressions and cues, can help me improve her quality of life. It feels more natural and understanding than me treating her care like a checklist to get through.
Empathy helps me sense when she’s getting bored or hungry, and I use these senses to know what to do next. You and I aren't always hungry at exactly 12:00 pm every day, so why would she be? Empathy, patience, and intuition allow me to meet my wife's needs without refusing to budge from a rigid schedule.
Passing on empathy to my child
Empathy develops with age, but it also needs to be taught. For example, as babies, we focus entirely on our own needs. We can't verbalize them, and we view adults as people who exist to give us what we want.
As we grow, we (hopefully) start to learn that the world doesn't revolve around us, and we have to take into account the needs of others, too.
As the parent of a teenage daughter, I’ve learned empathy develops over time in most children. For some, it may be quicker than others. It depends on their nurture, personalities, or any conditions they may have.
I've also learned that helping children grow into compassionate adults can start at birth. Many resources suggest ways to encourage and reinforce those characteristics throughout childhood.
My daughter's ability to act empathetically didn’t develop until she was almost a teenager. I’ve learned that struggling to show empathy can be common in children with ADHD. Regardless, my wife and I ensured we were role models for empathetic behavior. When my daughter was eight, and J had a stroke, I didn't stop doing that. After all, we all needed more empathy than ever.
When my daughter's "empathy switch" turned on, she could absorb the behaviors we had shown her. Those same behaviors started to integrate their way into her personality. She's not assisting in her mother's care, but she can now understand how her mother is feeling, and she's more open to helping me when I ask.
I've also seen a huge difference in the empathetic, caring way she treats her friends. I'm so glad we taught her about empathy in her early years, even if our modeled behaviors took time to take effect.
If you'd like to try some techniques for teaching your child empathy, the Harvard Business School of Education provides an excellent and straightforward resource.
2. The desire to deepen our knowledge and learn new skills
Why do we insist on separating what's "useful to know" by sex and gender?
When you become a family caregiver, the odds are 50/50 on whether you'll care for someone of a different sex, be it a partner, parent, or child. Sadly, much of the essential knowledge we teach our children depends on what gender we perceive them to be.
When I went to school, I wasn't taught about menstruation or the menopause. (On this note, I recently heard that many girls aren't formally taught about the menopause either!). I lived in a gender-conforming household, so my parents never discussed menstruation with me. I was never taught how to apply make-up or style long hair. I had a sister - seven years younger than me - and I was not expected or allowed to help, despite being old enough.
Soon after I became my wife's caregiver, these knowledge gaps made me insecure. Sure, I could do the essentials, but what about doing justice to my wife's beauty and self-image? My daughter was an infant then, and caring for her was much easier than caregiving for my 55-year-old wife. I knew little about my wife's biological, hygienic, or psychological needs.
Pierced ears, for example. What did I do? If we were going out, how did I fix my wife's hair, pick her the right outfit, and do her make-up the way she used to? The uncertainty made me wish I'd played with dolls as a kid and explored these things more.
Caregiving pushed me to learn how to help manage my wife’s menstruation and apply her lipstick. Years later, I'm much better at these, though I can't say I've mastered them. I had to search for resources on the net and watch YouTube tutorials. I also asked friends who I knew wouldn’t shame me – or baby me by taking over and insisting that I didn’t “need” to know.
Okay… so "how to tie a ponytail" won't become part of the school curriculum for boys or girls anytime soon. That's something to be learned at home. Still, I hope schools will expand their health classes to teach the intricacies of our human bodies, i.e., about menstruation or how the production of hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone differ depending on whether someone is biologically female or male, and how the difference influences human physiology and pathophysiology. There is no reason for schools to segregate such lessons by sex.
I made sure my daughter had a comprehensive sexuality education
My daughter benefited from a coed “health” class in middle school. She benefitted even more from our church's OWL (Our Whole Lives) program. The latter definitely helped guide her through the developmental years.
The problem is, in parts of the US, providing a “sexuality education” to children is highly controversial - and sometimes even banned. The fear is too much knowledge will lead to “deviant” behavior.
On the other hand, I fear we are perpetuating long-held stereotypes of gender-specific behavior. In turn, we reduce our children’s ability to accept, love, and care for one another. Nurturing attitudes should extend beyond our gender, sex, or sexuality.
I hope households become less divisive about what they teach their children. EVERY child could benefit from learning how to put up a ponytail. EVERY child can benefit from learning to rewire a plug.
It's difficult to find articles about caring for the opposite sex. Many seem promising on a quick search, but they are research papers on the gender gap in family caregiving. While interesting and eye-opening, articles like Caring for the Opposite Sex: Dealing with Intimacy Challenges are more immediately helpful - but they are relatively few and far between.
3. A strong stomach (and a mature mindset)
Have you ever watched a TV commercial for indigestion and cringed at the word “diarrhea”? You are not alone. Many people grow up with stigmas attached to normal bodily functions. Do I even need to provide an explicit list here?
Doctors, nurses, and paramedics deal with all types of biological issues and emergencies - and so do caregivers.
I’ll spare you the details, but my wife is both bladder and bowel incontinent. I have dealt with situations I never imagined seeing when I was younger, and there’s no avoiding it.
We may talk more about our bodily functions nowadays, but I grew up in a household where they were kept under wraps. My mother had Crohn’s disease and an ileostomy for most of her life, but my parents hid her conditions from me until my late teens. I never knew what she endured or how my dad supported her.
Rashes, sores, blood, and snot are natural, and everyone deals with them. It would make being a family caregiver more tolerable if we accepted these biological functions and didn’t view them as taboo or disgusting.
By treating these things as “gross,” we’re not considering the feelings of the people we care for. You’re grossed out, sure, but they’re probably embarrassed enough as it is. We must put aside our “yucks” and handle these situations gracefully and with compassion.
My daughter knows bodily functions aren’t “taboo topics”
When it comes to my daughter, I don’t shy away from these things. She even surprises me by openly sharing milestones in her own development.
Given my upbringing, these are not always the easiest discussions, and often I find myself resorting to “potty humor.”
But overall, I maintain a sensitive and non-judgmental demeanor.
4. Strong organizational skills
How good are you at managing your life? Are you organized, or do you “wing it”? Now imagine you’re managing your own life and the life of the person you care for. You are responsible for their daily living, like hygiene, bathing, eating, and dressing. There are medications to manage and appointments to keep.
Add in financial, medical, and emotional issues, entertainment, and everything else that goes along with life, and you can quickly see how this can be overwhelming.
My last article, “Caregiver Time Management,” provides tools to help family caregivers manage daily activities. However, it doesn’t say how to instill organizational and executive skills in our children early on. These skills are valuable throughout one’s life, especially in school.
I mistakenly assumed the school would teach my child all the necessary organizational skills. A lot of parents do this! In hindsight, I should have helped more with my daughter’s organizational competence in her early years, especially as she has ADHD. Thankfully, this is one topic where many resources exist to help parents.
As with most things, modeling successful behaviors is the best way to impart those behaviors to your children. Before my wife’s stroke, neither of us was good about doing that. We both worked at home, and our household was a mashup of work/life with no balance.
Teaching my daughter organization skills is hard when it doesn’t come naturally to me!
I’ll admit it… all the organizational skills my daughter learned during her preschool and early elementary years came from her school.
I’ve tried to make up for past sins after my wife's stroke. I now manage everything and model effective behaviors. I’m now seeing glimmers that my daughter is internalizing some of my teachings.
Honestly, I’ve struggled with organizing and planning throughout my life. This is ironic since I was a project manager for many years early in my career.
My problem stems from a lack of knowledge at a young age and then being overwhelmed with options as an adult - even now. For example, I know someone who started using a paper calendar/planner early on and has stuck with it to this day. She’s productive, organized, and effective.
I, on the other hand, need help organizing my organizers. My current most successful strategy is to manage everything through my online calendar. If it’s not on the calendar, it won’t get done.
The takeaway: we can all benefit from learning to be caregivers
Finding ways to develop our understanding and compassion for others will help us become better caregivers - and better humans.
Despite the issues I deal with daily, I still feel compassion for those around me who may have even greater struggles. One of my favorite things is giving back by helping in some small way. The desire to understand and help those around you is what caregiving is about.
Humankind needs to open up and better accept each other - unrestrained by gender, race, religion, etc. We need to become a more caring community. Think about your unique desires, quirks, and habits, and then think about how many people think and act the same way you do. I'm guessing very few.
Now, imagine if someone had to care for you, essentially managing your life. Would you want those quirks and habits to be steamrollered by someone else's personality? Or would you prefer someone who could empathize and understand you?
When life throws you a curveball, being faced with a loss of independence, privacy, self-determination, and choice is scary. Having to rely on others to get through the day can be terrifying. But there may be comfort in knowing that more of us have been raised to deal with this situation.
The next generation of family caregivers will be capable of providing what's needed AND wanted by using empathetic skills. They'll understand and be comfortable dealing with human physiology and natural functions. They'll have the skills to manage stressful and potentially unforeseen situations.
Visualize that world, and you will feel better about the future for us all.
The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.
NPS-ALL-NP-01072 AUGUST 2023