Jennifer Brown, M.Ed., LPC
The Benefits of "Good Enough" Parenting
In our society, the idea of “just good enough” makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. We are encouraged in most realms of our lives to keep pushing, working toward unattainable perfection. Often, the disappointment and frustration of this tireless pursuit leads people to throw their hands up and momentarily give up, reluctantly accepting the “good enough” in any given scenario. For many, accepting something as good enough often feels like settling. An excuse not to try harder. A failure.
This internal conflict comes up often in parenting. A friend recently shared that she thought her children deserved a better mother than she could be. With great sadness, she described how she had frustrated her children by not meeting their needs or understanding them perfectly, wishing she had observed them more closely in their struggles as they grew. This wish to be the perfect parent is understandable, as it is born out of the intense love and sense of protection most parents experience for their children. However, it keeps many parents on a hamster wheel of guilt and shame that often obscures the most wonderful and helpful parts of the parent-child relationship.
The Goal of Parenting
The main goal of raising a child is to help them arrive at adulthood as safely and securely as possible, with the skills they need to care for themselves. In essence, a parent’s job is to put themselves out of a job by teaching and supporting their child to develop autonomy in thought, body, and emotional regulation. Your child is likely fed, clothed, and housed to a good enough degree, at this moment, that you can give yourself a big ol’ parenting pat on the back! Those are the first necessary components to good parenting and not always an easy feat in today’s economic climate. Of course, your job most definitely doesn’t end there, but the aforementioned components of child-rearing are the foundation on which you build your good enough parenting. Now let’s take a look at the argument for good enough parenting and how perfect parenting can set your child back.
Parents Do More for Their Child by Not Being Perfect
In infancy, when a parent does not anticipate their baby’s needs perfectly, the baby will scream or cry to alert parents that they are hungry or uncomfortable. The frustration a baby experiences at not having their needs met immediately gives way to the fundamental internal development that the parent is separate a whole, separate person from the baby -- the literal first step in the development of a “self”. As the infant grows, they begin to experience this self as a subject (hello Object Relations/Attachment theory!).
Now let’s imagine that an infant’s needs are met perfectly by the caregivers in their lives. The baby does not have to scream to alert caregivers of hunger, because the caregiver feeds the baby before the baby cries. Anticipating the needs of this infant perfectly might make the caregiver feel as if they have parenting superpowers, but the infant never learns the concept of “hunger” because he or she does not get to have the experience of being hungry. Additionally, the infant does not have to scream to have his or her need met and does not experience letting someone know that they need something, even in the most primal ways.
Now, imagine this continues into toddlerhood and beyond as the child begins school. Without the foundation of identifying hunger, the child may over or under eat as they develop body autonomy or literally be confused about the physical feeling of being hungry. If the child has not had sufficient practice in alerting others of his or her needs, or has not ever had to alert someone else of their own needs, the child will wrongly assume that all others will meet their needs as perfectly as their parents have, and will not have the ability to advocate for their needs themselves.
It’s starting to seem as if perfect parenting isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, isn’t it?
D.W. Winnicott’s Brilliance
Psychoanalyst and child development expert, D.W. Winnicott, was one of the pioneers of and life-long advocate for “good enough” parenting. According to Winnicott’s theories, children learn an essential lesson throughout childhood when their needs are met imperfectly, but to a good enough degree. When a child’s need or desire is not met or satisfied immediately, or in the exact way they would like it to be met, children learn to tolerate frustration. I don’t know about your daily life, but this lesson has certainly come in handy for me as an adult. Tolerating frustration is a necessary skill for navigating in and through the world. By being an imperfect (read: good enough) parent, you give your child implicit experience in frustration tolerance.
Phew! That takes a little of the pressure off, doesn’t it?
Additionally, when parents do not perfectly meet their child’s needs, this creates room for the child to practice meeting their own needs (outside of infancy). Imagine that your five year old would like a snack, and you are in the middle of a work call. Your child asks you for a snack, and you let them know you aren’t available to get it for them at the moment. Your child has two choices; wait for you to be finished on your work call or seek out a snack on their own. Because you were not available to meet your child’s need perfectly, your child now has an opportunity to practice one of two things; tolerating a delay in gratification (waiting on you for their snack) or meeting a need autonomously (grabbing the snack themselves). The foundations for these skills were built in infancy when your child realized that their hunger is not your hunger and that you are separate individuals. This also happens with feelings, and your child begins to realize that their anger is not your anger (Thanks Winnicott!).
In the aforementioned snack example, another great thing is happening for your child’s development. Your being unavailable models for your child how one person can play many different roles, which comes in handy for their identity formation. Of course, you are a parent first and foremost, but you are also an employee/employer, a partner, a friend, a sibling, etc.
Occasionally, the other relationships and roles you fulfill need to come first. For example, scheduling a date night with your partner or taking a work call at home does not hinder your ability to meet the main goal of parenting (mentioned above). As a result, your child learns that all people, including parents and themselves, are whole people and are not defined by just one role. Remember when you found out that your parents’ names were not actually “Mom” or “Dad”? It’s mind blowing! Meeting the main goal of parenting is helped when parents are whole people and value all their other roles, relationships, and interests as much as their role as a parent. Over time, children internalize this and make room for all the dynamic possibilities for their own growing identity. Plus, when your needs are met to a good enough degree, you are better able to meet your child’s needs to a good enough degree.
Let’s leave perfection to the birds!