The phrase “the good enough mother” was coined by the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott in his famous book Playing and Reality. However, I will use the term good enough parent (applicable to father, mother, any caregiver) because we need to stop making mothers accountable for everything that goes right or wrong in child-raising. Let’s face it, they pass on 50% of genes and the onus of parenting does not lie 100% of them.
Back to Winnicott. He said:
‘a parent is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity: The good-enough parent … starts off with an almost complete adaptation to the infant’s needs, and as time proceeds parent adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with parents failure. Parent’s failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.’
Good enough (GE)parenting means meeting the child’s needs adequately, according to your own social and cultural standards. Hmm, that’s vague. What does ‘needs’ mean here? How does one know how much is ‘adequate’?
Needs: Good enough parenting starts out with taking care of age-appropriate child’s needs. For instance, in a new-born GE parent needs to closely monitor or look for child’s needs. But, as time goes by, parent allows the child to experience small doses of frustration. Yes, there is affection, care, empathy but not immediately rushing to the child’s every cry. GE parent is not “perfect” but is “good enough” in that the child is allowed to feel the age-appropriate dose of frustration.
If the close monitoring to the child’s need goes on too long, and does not decline naturally, the child’s growing sense of a real external world is interrupted. Unfortunately, in our culture, this practice is frowned upon and seen as a careless parenting. This is a developmental need of a child to learn that there is a world out there. Support the child in exploration of the world by no interruption. At the same time, be there and welcome the child’s need for comfort and/or protection (in non-threatening manner).
Adequate: Research says, parents need only ‘get it right’ 50% of the time when responding to child’s need for positive impact on attachment. This may be reassuring for new parents to know that holding a crying new-born until fully soothed, even 50% of the time, promotes security or positive care-giving.
As parents and caregivers, our natural inclination is to protect our children and make their lives easier. Overdoing that, inadvertently and no matter how kind and loving our intentions, smashes child’s confidence and hinders their ability to care for themselves — and that’s not a precedent you want to set!
It’s important to understand that validation doesn’t always mean agreement. If a child is terrified about going to the doctor for a vaccine shot, you don’t want to dismiss child's fears, but you also don’t want to amplify them. Listen to your child and be empathetic, help the child understand what they are anxious about, and encourage them to feel that they can face their fears. The message you want to send is, “I know you’re scared, and that’s okay, and I’m here, and I’m going to help you get through this.”
There will be occasional sacrifices like sleep deprivation to fulfill the needs of the child and that’s fine. Learning point is that we do not need to glorify this self-sacrificial attribute of parenthood. There is practical work that parenthood requires to be done. Self-sacrifice is just an occupational hazard. All parents have to make choices-no resources are unlimited. Remember, goal is to promote independence and security for the child.
So, now you can try to let go of tiny fraction of anxiety regarding ‘perfect parenting.’
Lower the bar.
You don’t have to do it 100 percent — you have to get it right about half of the time.
Footnotes: Needs entail material as well as emotional. Material needs include physical care, nutrition, and protection. My focus is around emotional needs.
- Transitional objects and transitional phenomena; a study of the first not-me possession. Winnicott DW. Int J Psychoanal. 1953; 34(2):89–97.
- Hoghughi M, Speight Anp; Good enough parenting for all children-a strategy for a healthier society. Archives of Disease in Childhood 1998;78:293–296.
Originally published at http://childpsychling.wordpress.com on December 8, 2019.