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  • Writer's pictureDr. Susan Beesley

Ode to the Good Enough Parent




More than anything else I can think of, parenting showcases our greatest hopes and our rawest vulnerabilities. Most of us are thrown into the role without much experience or preparation. But in contrast to other roles we are thrust into, the stakes of our parenting success are sky high. Or at least that is how it feels. We think that if we don’t provide the most stimulating experiences, the best this and the best that, our kids will somehow fall short. And it will be our fault. So we are directed by our love and our fear into a myth of needing to be the perfect parent. 


And thus begins the comparing mind. We might start measuring our successes by comparing ourselves and our children to those around us and even worse to the heavily curated beautiful families of social media. This success might be measured out by kids behaviors or achievements or by some other subjective standard. And because we are comparing ourselves to the impossible standard of perfection, of course we fall short. This rat race leads to parental exhaustion, burn out, and disconnection from our kids and ourselves. 


However, there is a different approach we can adopt that lets us off the hook of perfection AND leads to more resilient and adaptable children. This is the good enough parent. Good enough may sound like settling for second best, but I would argue that it is blue ribbon worthy.


In 1953, pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott used his knowledge of infant development to inform his theory of the good enough parent. He said “the good-enough mother ... starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less… according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.” 


Initially, the baby is in love with his mother and experiences her as an extension of himself. In the first months of life, most parents respond quickly and soothe their babies when needed. The prompt attention parents provide helps babies develop secure attachment. According to Winnicott, this is the illusion period of development, in which the baby merges his identity with his parent. 


The good enough parent is one who can manage this demand without being overwhelmed. They meet the baby’s needs, but also find ways to define boundaries. Moments apart from the parent’s complete attention spark the beginning of the baby's identification of the parent as something separate from the self and introduces the concept of an external world. 


The recognition of the parent as separate, according to Winnicott, serves the important role of disillusionment. Every human must endure the wake up call that he is not the only one with desires and needs. This introduces an element of frustration and anger into the child’s experience, as his needs are no longer being instantaneously met. 



The good enough parent permits the expression of these emotions as their child struggles to accept his

separateness. They accept the frustration and anger that the child expresses, holding space for the process to unfold naturally. They do not get caught up in their child’s negative emotions or interpret this expression as something that needs to be fixed or avoided. Further, the good enough parent does not take their child’s negative emotions personally. They respond to and support their child’s emotions without becoming activated or letting the experience reflect negatively back on themselves. 


Through multiple small disappointments and frustrations, the child is faced with many chances to practice managing these difficult emotions. This repeated grappling with difficult emotions helps the child cultivate skills of frustration tolerance, patience, adaptability, resilience, and grit. A good enough parent helps their child gain these skills, become self-sufficient, and learn to soothe himself.


A parent trying to uphold the illusion of perfection may find it difficult to tolerate their child’s discomfort, frustration, and anger.  They might try to prevent their child from experiencing these emotions by meeting their child’s needs before frustration ensues. In doing so, they provide little opportunity for their child to develop skills for managing negative feelings, so when they do arise, they may be left feeling that something has gone wrong with their child, the parent-child relationship, or their parenting.


Letting go of the illusion of perfection and embracing good enough parenting opens up a spaciousness that invites the full experience of life in all of its joys, challenges and messy imperfections. As Winnecott noted, we are bringing our children into an imperfect and frequently frustrating world, so it is necessary and realistic to practice managing frustration, imperfection, and disappointment. Not to focus on the negative but rather, to be available for the whole range of feelings and experience. 


If we give ourselves permission to be good-enough, and accept our imperfections, we can turn feelings of isolation and failure into opportunities to support and connect with one another.  We can normalize the natural emotional tensions that arise in parenting struggles, and model to our children self compassion and resilience. 



References 


Hoghughi, M. & Speight, A.N.P. (1998). Good enough parenting for all children – a strategy for a healthier society. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 78, 293-300. 


Taylor, J., Lauder, W., Moy, M. & Corlett, J. (2009). Practitioner assessments of ‘good enough’ parenting: factorial survey. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 18, 1180-1189. 


Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Routledge.  


Winnicott DW. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena; a study of the first not-me possession. Int J Psychoanal. 34(2), 89–97. 

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