Good Enough Parenting
Ph.D. Developmental PsychologyMieke is a parenting expert with over 20 years of experience working with kids and families. Her research has focused on the role of media and technology in kids’ lives and has been published in top academic journals. She has also spent 10 years (and counting) of collaboration with Common Sense Media.
Good enough parenting should be your parenting goal.
“Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.” Origin uncertain
There’s a common refrain that kids don’t come with instruction manuals. However, if you type “parenting books” into an Amazon search bar, you’ll get over 70,000 results. That suggests that rather than having no instruction manuals, there are too many. Especially because every book promises to have “the answer” to whatever caregiving doubts you’re having and will make you the perfect caregiver. Not to mention that often one book’s advice will directly contradict the next one. So here’s the one piece of advice that every caregiver should internalize: there’s no such thing as a perfect caregiver, nor is there one perfect way to raise every kid. Other than providing love, support, and basic survival needs, your job as a caregiver is simply to be good enough.
Winnicott’s Good Enough Parenting
The term “good enough” was born in the 1950’s and comes from British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He originally used the term to describe the “good enough mother” who naturally – and necessarily – relaxes her hyper-responsiveness to every one of her small infant’s needs. As her baby grows, the “good enough mother” gradually steps back and lets her kid develop independence. But, knowing how to strike the “just right” balance between attentiveness and independence isn’t an exact science, and mothers are bound to not get it perfect every time. Instead, the goal should be to be “good enough,” by being more reliable then not, and being a generally loving and caring presence. In fact, says Winnicott, the mother’s imperfections are great learning opportunities for the kid. Nothing in life is perfect, not even your mother! Seeing those missteps and then what the mother learns from them are valuable learning moments.
Now in the 21st century, some of Winnicott’s details and language choices are outdated. But the underlying concept is more relevant than ever. What does it mean to be “good enough” in 2022?
How to be a good enough parent?
Embracing the inevitability of imperfection in parenting
First, it’s important to make it clear that “good enough” is not an excuse to be mediocre, or to not meet kids’ basic needs. The concept of good enough is more an alternative to the ever-lasting, never attainable need to reach perfection. To create meaningful, enriching, educational, stimulating moments in your kids’ life 24/7. To dress them in the “right” clothes, send them to the “right” activities, feed them the “right” food, talk to them with the “right” words, and shape their every experience in the “right” way. Whatever “right” means. To continuously compare your parenting with the other parents who seem to have it all figured out with perfectly curated lives and perfect kids. And to be constantly plagued by “shoulds.” I “should” be spending more quality time with them, I “should” be disciplining them differently, I “should,” I “should,” I “should.”
We’re all different and everyone’s good enough may be different. But there are some basics that could be considered universal. Are you meeting your kids basic survival needs: clothing, shelter, and food? Are you more often than not providing a loving and supportive environment and cultivating an emotional connection with your kids? The rest are the details, and it’s up to you to figure out what those details are.
Adequate Parenting is Goal oriented parenting
Consider thinking about a handful of overarching big picture caregiving goals. Use those goals as your guiding light, north star ideas. Aim to make as many as possible of your caregiving decisions fit those goals. And then, be ready with buckets of self compassion when you’re just having an off day and you’ve failed to praise “properly” or you’ve screamed at them to put their darn socks on and get out the door, or you’ve just done something that you’re not entirely proud of. We’re all human, we all make mistakes. Bonus points actually for recognizing that fact and circling around to talk to your kids about it. We’re not always able to, but the more we can acknowledge where we’ve failed, apologize, and then try to make things better, the more we’re doing a great job modeling real-life for our kids.
On the flip side, don’t forget to give yourself a huge pat on the back when you feel like you’ve just racked up a huge parenting success. There’s no harm in recognizing those moments when you feel like you’ve been the best parent you can be.
Tips on being a Good Enough parent
Accept that your child isn’t perfect. And neither are you. So often it can feel that our kids’ failures or weak spots are tell-tale signs of the ways that we’re doing something wrong. Your kid will make mistakes. They won’t always behave perfectly. They won’t always be exactly who we would like them to be. But, we love them anyway. What a great way to practice unconditional love! And the same goes for you as the caregiver: we aren’t always exactly who we want ourselves to be. But we should love ourselves anyway.
If you make a mistake, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Actually, the word should be “when” rather than “if,” because we will all make mistakes. Your kids will and so will you. Practice overall compassion. When you make a mistake, it just means that you’re human. If you want something to work on, it can be to learn when a mistake is an opportunity for growth and when it’s okay to just be at peace with imperfection.
Self care. As a caregiver you’re so busy looking after your kids’ needs and it’s so easy to neglect your own. Find something that brings you joy and peace, and make sure you carve out time to do it. Even five minutes a day can make a big difference.
Choose your battles/priorities. I’m sure you have a long list of hopes and dreams for who you want to be as a caregiver and who you want your kid to be. Instead of trying to focus on all of them at once – and inevitably failing – choose the most important ones and focus on those.
Prioritize your relationship with your kid. If you’re having trouble choosing what to focus on, try just prioritizing your relationship. Creating a loving, supportive relationship is the best foundation for great caregiving.
Final thoughts on being an good enough parent in the 21st century
So, caregivers, read as much advice as you want on the latest and greatest in raising kids. And sure, do the best you can to follow the advice that feels right for you and your family. But don’t beat yourself up when you don’t do it all perfectly. Because being good enough is actually better than being perfect.