Good enough parenting

What is good enough parenting in times of a global pandemic, and what can we do about it? Many families have a noticeboard in the kitchen or a calendar. Others have a timetable stuck on the fridge with magnets. The kitchen tends to be like Grand Central Station, with people coming and going, eating, making lunches, or doing homework. In a time of Covid-19, it became ‘home-school central’ as kids had to be home-schooled. In many homes, it was ‘my office next to your classroom’ and all at the kitchen table. Can you relate to all of this? Sound familiar?

There have been some funny images of different quarantine home timetables too!

I remember watching Little Fires Everywhere. Did you see it? One thing that caught my eye was that family schedule noticeboard in the kitchen. It’s at 1.43 in the video below.

Reese Witherspoon plays the character of a seemingly perfect Mom – always organized, running everything like clockwork. We have all met parents who have children involved in lots of activities. Or who seem to have everything running smoothly all of the time. Yet, no one seems to have time to draw breath.

Some parents recoil from this and wonder what it’s like for children to be constantly involved in activities (different sports, clubs, scouts, and so on) so that they are always on the road and no one ever seems to have time to take a breather. Other parents can feel guilty that they may not have the income to pay for so many activities or because they don’t have the time to bring their children to so many activities. Whatever the situation is, the pressure is on.

Where do we find the balance point?

Photographer: Markus Winkler | Source: Unsplash

Either way, there is no judgment here. Some parents are keen to ensure that their children get every opportunity that they can. Some children try out different organized sports before choosing one they like, while others do most of their sports at the park with the neighborhood kids.

Parents involved in extra-curricular activities in their own childhoods often believe that this is good for their own kids. Sometimes the kids want it too. For example, they might like their kids involved in one sport in summer and another in winter. However, kids need to experience boredom or experience gaps in their schedule. In other words, these times are important for children to figure out how to fill their own space.

What guidance do we have?

Go into any bookstore, and you’ll be overwhelmed by the number of books on parenting. Harries and Brown’s 2017 research noted the challenge of motherhood and the multi-million sales of baby books. Seeing that, they investigated the experience of mothers using baby books, assessing how this related to maternal well-being. The results weren’t promising:

Three hundred and fifty-four mothers with an infant aged 0–12 months reported use of infant parenting books that promote strict routines, experience of using them, and measures of postnatal depression, maternal self-efficacy and parenting stress. Use of the books was associated with increased depressive symptoms and stress, alongside lower self-efficacy, although experience of using the books predicted this. Although those who found the books useful had greater well-being, the majority did not find them useful, which was associated with lower well-being.

In fact, mothers report lower self-confidence and depressive symptoms the more such books the mothers read.

Parenting and the baby market are big business. According to Statista,

The baby care market is composed of different segments and products, such as toys, feeding accessories, wipes, disposable diapers, body care products and soothers, to name a few. The window for the purchase of baby care products and accessories is rather small, while consumers look for quality for their children. The global baby care market is expected to increase in size to be worth over 100 billion U.S. dollars by 2025.

In many ways, parents feel anxious to do what's best for their children or guilty when they feel they are not doing enough (we’ll be writing a whole post about mom-guilt or parent guilt, shortly). Thus, parents constantly compare to see what other parents do. This debate can rage on into all sorts of other areas regarding the costs of having a child – for example, childcare, education, college, and so on.

Maybe we need to take a breath and step off this ever-turning wheel and focus on what's good enough, and that that actually means, and looks like.

What does good enough parenting really mean?

Introduced by British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in his book Playing and Reality, the 'good enough' parent provides support to what he called "the sound instincts of parents". Winnicott was of his time in the 1960s, and talked about the ‘good enough mother’. This was taken further by Bettelheim when he talked about the “good enough parent”. Indeed, Bettleheim had some troubling viewpoints, but the “good enough parent” was a concept that he appropriately updated and explained in easily understood terms.

When the world feels stressful, we grip things more tightly. We do this as a way of trying to remain in control; the Irish have a phrase for it – greim an duine bhaite, meaning ‘grip of the drowning person’. In other words, you can imagine how tightly that type of grip is! In terms of parenting, this tight grip leads to an inability to relax. Consequently, perfectionist tendencies arise, with ever higher unrealistic standards imposed. Even more, we get into cycles of comparing ourselves to others and feeling even worse off.

Perfection does not exist.

Photographer: Jonathan Hoxmark | Source: Unsplash

Perfection is some ephemeral concept or myth – like the lost city of Atlantis. Nevertheless, we don’t always get it right as parents or as families. We argue, fight, laugh, and joke.

One minute it’s all going swimmingly, with a pristine well-organized home, and the next minute, there is peanut butter in the toilet and permanent marker on the walls. We rupture and we repair – just as muscles do, and as all relationships do. This is how we grow stronger together. That’s how we roll.

The concept of ‘good enough’ doesn’t mean having low standards.

‘Good enough parenting’ means being able to show warmth and sensitivity to our children, being responsive to their emotional and physical needs. When we are mindful, we tune in to the needs of our children. We are attuned.

All in all, we cannot be 100% responsive or sensitive all the time. At any rate, we are only human – and we do our best, with our best efforts and intentions.

As parents, we trust our gut and intuition- though sometimes we can fly by the seat of our pants. It’s true, we can’t predict the future. We cannot know if a child climbs a tree that they won’t fall out of it or won’t get stuck and not be able to climb down unless we go up there to carry them down.

We’ll get it ‘right’ (whatever that is) most of the time – but not always.

Parenting is a moment by moment process – a work in progress. While we never fully arrive, we are always on our way there. As a parent, we have an attachment and a relationship with a child – our son or daughter. We can’t fully predict what they will do in any situation. This is part of learning.

‘Good enough parenting’ and secure attachment

times go by
Photographer: Anne Nygård | Source: Unsplash

Lehigh University researcher Susan S. Woodhouse has demonstrated the concept of ‘good enough parenting’ with regard to secure attachment in children. Her 2019 research, stating :

"The first message gets at the core of getting the job done — supporting the baby in exploration and not interrupting it and welcoming babies in when they need us for comfort or protection," Woodhouse said. "The other part is that you don't have to do it 100 percent — you have to get it right about half of the time, and babies are very forgiving and it's never too late. Keep trying. You don't have to be perfect, you just have to be good enough."

The study emphasized the importance of attachment and providing a secure base for an infant. It enriched attachment theory with its findings – noting that how attachment takes place is what matters.

The research stated that “holding a crying infant until fully soothed, even 50% of the time, promotes security,"……… [and that] "Such a message could help parents increase positive caregiving without raising anxiety regarding 'perfect parenting' or setting the bar so high as to make change unattainable in families that face multiple stressors."

Secure attachment can be promoted in a child through being available for eye contact as opposed to actively or continually making eye contact or being ‘joined at the hip’ with a child. Being available for eye contact can still help to regulate connectedness with a child. Thereby, promoting secure attachment.

How “good enough parenting” links with mindful parenting

metal chain
Photographer: Mike Alonzo | Source: Unsplash

We see many links or parallels between “good enough parenting” and mindful parenting.

For example, Bettleheim notes that :

“While we are not perfect, we are indeed good enough parents if most of the time we love our children and do our best to do well by them. This wisdom, or truth, can protect us against the folly of reflecting that everything a child does reflects only upon us. Much of what he does has mainly to do with himself and only indirectly or peripherally with us and what we do.”

This is the ability to stand apart and be responsive. Being able to see our child in a way that is compassionate towards the child but also compassionate towards ourselves as parents. It is about being humble.

Bettleheim also talks about :

“Empathy, so important to the adult’s understanding of the child, requires that one consider the other person as an equal—not in regard to knowledge, intelligence, or experience, and certainly not in maturity, but in regard to the feelings which motivate us all.”

In this way, a parent understands the feelings of the child and has due regard and respect for these feelings. This means too, not becoming swept up in these feelings. While the language is a bit dated, this equates with mindful parenting’s view of emotional awareness of self and the child.

Bettleheim talks about :

“If we as parents can empathize with, for example, the child’s need to assert himself by rejecting schoolwork, or his fear that he may become a puppet if he does as others wish him to do, then our attitude toward him will be entirely different from what it is when we attribute his lack of academic achievement to laziness or lack of ability.”

This is akin to the mindful parenting view of non-judgmental acceptance of self and child.

The parallels are interesting. Bettleheim speaks of a child being secure if a parent is secure. This type of atmosphere is mutually created. This equates with the mindful paren notion of self-regulation in the parenting relationship. Parents who have a degree of confidence about their parenting are more likely to be more calm, patient, and less anxious in their parenting. This then creates a greater source of security for their children, than parents who don’t feel so confident. Essentially, knowing and feeling good enough helps – not striving for perfection.