Parenting is hard, and there is no shortage of dizzying advice, much of it contradictory and confusing. I know parents (myself included) long for practical and compassionate guidance, so recently I dusted off the works of two preeminent child development experts whose work has directly or indirectly influenced every contemporary book on parenting. While both were products of their mid-twentieth-century existence and thus should be read in context, I was blown away (again) by their astute and prescient insights that resonate with our contemporary parenting challenges.
Dr. D.W. Winnicott was a brilliant pediatrician and psychoanalyst who emphasized the importance of play in childhood, and who coined the phrase the “good enough mother” (which I would update to the “good enough parent” or “good enough primary caretaker”). I have always been heartened by the notion of the good enough mother, with its emphasis on “enough.”
While newborns and infants—who require a high level of care and attention—are the exception to this rule, once children are no longer completely dependent on us for every need, they actually benefit from caretakers taking a step back. When we fail our children in tolerable ways, children learn how to live in an imperfect world. When we don’t immediately come when they call us, when we make them share, when they have to do something they don’t want to do, we are helping them adapt to a world that does not revolve around them and that will offer many opportunities to disappoint them. When we do not meet our child’s needs at every turn, they learn to manage the inevitable vicissitudes of everyday life.
When our children are presented with these opportunities to face some adversity on their own, they figure out how to tolerate sadness, frustration, and boredom. Consequently, they develop the courage to prevail and the confidence to understand that even though life provides many challenges, they have the wherewithal to navigate those challenges and to become stronger as a result. In short, “good enough” parenting helps to build resilience in our children.
Unfortunately, in our age of overachievement, some parents get stuck on “good enough” and think they owe it to their child to do “better.” The logic goes something like this: good enough may be good enough for some children, but my child deserves better, so I strive for perfection. I will be empathic and immediately available at all times.
Sadly, perfection is not the extension of good enough, but rather its enemy. It leads parents to the unproductive place of trying to meet the child’s every need, resulting in a child who can only face the disappointments and indifference of the world with fury and frustration—an epic backfire of good intentions. Also, when we over-parent our children, we run the risk of losing our own feelings in theirs, an unhealthy prospect that impairs the development of an individual sense of identity and self-esteem.
Let’s celebrate and take solace in the “good enough” parent. Wouldn’t we all be happier if we were encouraging each other to be good enough, understanding that the gift of the good enough parent is that we are helping to build our child’s resilience? Think about how much pressure it would take off our shoulders, and how good it would be for our children. What a beautiful New Year’s resolution we can all make together.
Next week I will focus on the work of eminent child psychiatrist Dr. Rudolph Dreikurs, whose 1964 groundbreaking book, Children: The Challenge, emphasized the importance of mutual respect between parents and children. He believed children do best in an environment of freedom, which depends on order, with its restrictions and obligations to others. Re-reading this intelligent book was so heartening, and I cannot wait to share some highlights with you.
Dr. Laura Konigsberg
Head of School