Within this dimension, the caregiver thinks about the child as an autonomous individual whose wishes, feelings and goals are valid and meaningful and who needs to feel effective. The carer therefore looks for ways of promoting autonomy, but also working together and achieving co-operation with the child wherever possible. This helps the child to feel more effective and competent, to feel confident in turning to others for help, if necessary, and to be able to compromise and co-operate.

The child's needs and behaviour

Some children have seldom experienced this co-operative approach to parenting as part of their early care. Birth family caregivers may have been over-controlling and intrusive, denying children the opportunity to make choices, to feel competent and be effective. Parents may have lacked the skills or capacity to negotiate, resulting in interventions that were harsh and abrupt or weak and ineffective. Additionally, in stressed and disadvantaged households there are often fewer opportunities for play, fun and mutually enjoyable activities.

For a range of reasons, therefore, children may not have developed a sense of themselves as competent individuals, nor of adults as co-operative partners, either in exploration and play or in managing difficulties. As a result, they may become passive and over-compliant in their relationships with adults or they may seek excessive control and influence over them.

Caregiver thinking and feeling

Most caregivers would agree that all children need to feel effective and competent and they will know that most children enjoy and benefit from opportunities to act on their environment, make choices and take gradual steps towards independence. But children who feel ineffective and who have lacked appropriate control and influence in their lives can behave in ways that trigger difficult feelings and painful associations in their caregivers, making it harder for them to work towards these goals.

In most cases, therefore, caregivers may need help in taking a step back to consider ‘how is this child affecting my sense of effectiveness and competence?' Understanding ones' own experiences and the extent to which one ‘needs' to be in control or is finding it hard to take control can be an important first step in co-operative caregiving. Shared thinking about the child's earlier experiences of caregiving and the ways in which issues of competence and control might have been handled with the child in the past can also be helpful for the caregiver. This leads to a stronger position from which to address the questions, how can I help this child to feel more effective and competent? and How can we work together? The caregiver is then able to take a step back, pause for thought and think in terms of forming a co-operative partnership with the child in order to achieve their shared and separate goals.

Caregiving behaviour

In co-operative caregiving, there are two important areas of ‘additional' parenting activity. The first is to help children to learn that it can be safe and rewarding to act. To achieve this, caregivers will need to actively structure an environment which promotes competence and choice, providing opportunities for their children to feel genuinely effective. At all times, sensitive caregivers must be mindful of the delicate balance between facilitating appropriate dependency and promoting appropriate independence.

The second task for caregivers is to help children to experience co-operative relationships in which each partner contributes to the other's goals. This involves making co-operation enjoyable; actively demonstrating that sharing and working together can be rewarding and fun. At the same time, negotiating within firm boundaries ensures that safe and reasonable limits are set and comfortable compromises can be reached when necessary.

The child's thinking and feeling

The caregiver must bear in mind that the child will need to have a developing trust in a secure base before he can feel safe enough to explore these alternative possibilities. Only when the foundations of trust are in place will the child be able to take the risk of thinking and behaving differently, being assertive but also co-operative. A growing sense of effectiveness will help the child to know that ‘I can make things happen within safe limits'. And positive experiences of working together with trusted adults will develop the sense that it is rewarding to compromise and co-operate.

Linked resources

Co-operation cycle pdf

Positive caregiving approaches

Video clip of foster carer, Vanessa, demonstrating co-operation

The Attachment Handbook for Foster Care and Adoption