The Good-Enough Parent

An approach to parenting that is pragmatic and principled

I worry that there are already too many experts on parenting. Books crowd the shelves, websites mushroom insistently, earnest articles advise us about the best way to manage what is an extremely difficult task.

Parents often say that children should be born with a user’s manual. The experts make up for this oversight by writing books that tell you how to be the best parent from conception onwards. On the other hand, parents are also advised to follow their own instincts, to trust their intuition and go with their gut. I worry that these conflicting opinions often end up making parents feel confused, guilty and inadequate rather than inspired and hopeful.

This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many parents I have worked with have been raised in urban, nuclear family settings and have had little exposure to parenting other than that of their own parents.

We cannot simply replicate the way we were parented. The world has changed.

Parents today face different realities. Few families have the choice of one parent staying home to parent full or part-time. Single parent and divorced family situations add to the complexity. Children also have access to information, technologies and the easy temptations of substances that allow for immediate gratification. Yet at the end of the teenage journey our children have to be independent and self-disciplined.

Old models of submission no longer fit. Some dictated that women submit to men as head of the family, that men submit unquestioningly to their bosses at work and that children always submit to adults. But these are no longer viable. Our constitution guarantees the rights and equality of workers, women and children. An authoritarian, ‘Do as I say’ parenting style is not helpful or possible. Children raised to always comply with adults are not equipped to ever say NO when it is necessary.

On the other hand, other models of parenting are permissive, with an anything-goes approach. Parents who are unable to set some limits for their children raise individuals who are unable to be empathic, tolerate frustration or delay gratification.

We need to explore the middle ground between authoritarian and permissive parenting. A style of parenting that is respectful of children, but that acknowledges the importance of parental authority. An approach that nourishes children without depleting parents, encourages courage and self-belief while insisting on compassion for others and the taking of responsibility.

An expert worth learning from is Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst who described the middle path in parenting. He argued that a parent needs simply to be good-enough, not perfect or even good. Just good enough.

Neglectful or abusive parenting that may be characterised by hurting, shaming and humiliation of children is not good enough. But well-intentioned, too-good parenting is not desirable either – in their desire to get it right and have perfect children, these parents end up raising children unable to manage failure. By overprotecting their children from failure or ‘damage’ to their self-esteem, they raise children who cannot deal with disappointment and are out of touch with their own feelings.

In practice what does this mean? My bit of “expertise” and experience highlights the value of the following:

As parents we need to:

  • Think about the way we were parented and question whether this is what we want for our children
  • Be responsive to our children’s needs
  • Act flexibly and practically in our approaches to motivating, communicating with and disciplining our children
  • Be realistic about what is in our power to control, and what is not
  • Remember that mistakes in parenting are inevitable, and necessary, and it’s how we repair the mistakes that is essential
  • Model respect and compassion to our children
  • Find out what is creative and joyful in our families
  • Maintain perspective and a sense of humour

Bill Cosby really understands the realities of being a parent – “in spite of the six thousand manuals on child raising in the bookstores, child raising is still a dark continent and no-one really knows anything. You just need a lot of love and luck – and of course, courage.” Bill Cosby, Fatherhood 1986

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