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Why being a good enough parent is enough

In the 1950s an English psychoanalyst and paediatrician, Donald Winnicott, developed a theory that in the first year of life the mother and her baby form a unit. The baby can’t be seen as separate from the mother because of a type of invisible psychic connection. He termed a phrase ‘Good Enough Mother’. This was further explored in the 1980s by a psychologist and scholar Dr. Bruno Bettelheim in his book, “A Good Enough Parent”. In essence, the message of the book is that parents should not expect themselves or their child to be perfect. What counts in the short and long term is for parents to be kind and consistent. And to try and to think about how their child is feeling, as much as what they are doing.

What does it mean to be good enough?

No one would argue that parenting isn’t hard work. It’s not so much the exciting times which are tiring, but often the repetition of doing the same thing over and over again. Setting unrealistic standards when raising our children is never a good idea. And it’s nice to know that child health experts don’t recommend doing this. It’s fine to be okay, to be average, and expect our children to be the same.

10 ways to be a good enough parent

It can help to have some ideas on what to aim for and when to relax a little. Most parents do the best they can with what they have available to them. In the meantime:

  1. Remember that children are set up to survive and are resilient. Some stress and disappointments are necessary for kids to learn that things don’t always work out as planned. Valuable lessons are learned when parents role model problem solving and finding solutions to problems, rather than being overwhelmed during stressful events.
  2. Look at the world from your child’s point of view – rather than always being the expert and controlling what goes on, allow your child the opportunity to exert some independence. Know when to take control and when to step back.
  3. Think about your own experiences as a child. With your adult brain, try to understand where they’re at with their development. Consider your child’s feelings and why they are doing what they are. Encourage them to keep trying when they’re frustrated and to have a break if they’re feeling overwhelmed.
  4. Understand your child’s behaviour is not a snapshot for how they will be as adults. It’s the experiences a child has as they grow which help them to reach their potential as adults. Happy children tend to grow into happy adults. Focusing too much on the future, rather than being in the present, can mean a lot of pleasure and joy is missed.
  5. Focus on having a positive relationship with your children. When making decisions around discipline, think about what will help to maintain your relationship and not cause damage. Support, rather than control and encouraging exploration and play activities helps children to learn what they are capable of.
  6. Know when to step back and give your children some space. The ability to feel comfortable when we’re alone and to be okay with the sense of being alone is a good thing. Quiet time, balanced with interaction with others, helps children to learn how to entertain themselves and reach out when they need to.
  7. Support your children to learn skills in being independent. Try not to do for your kids what they can do for themselves – mastery with feeding, dressing, toileting and problem solving through play all help to build independence. Be patient and try not to ‘rescue’ them when they’re learning.
  8. Be confident that you’re doing a good job. Children grow best in predictable, kind and stable homes. They don’t need a lot of ‘stuff’ to be happy. What really matters is their relationship with you and other people around them.
  9. Try to be compassionate and supportive. This takes some energy and isn’t always realistic. But look for opportunities to praise, not criticise and describe behaviours you’d like to see more of.
  10. Look after yourself. Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint, and it pays for parents to pace themselves.

Written for Multi-Mam by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, August 2022.