Good-enough Parenting


In my previous article on parenting I referred to the constant juggling act we have to perform as parents: adjusting our own childhood experiences to fit our sense of being parents; looking after ourselves while attending to the needs of an initially helpless little being; hanging on to our powers of reflection while having to think on our feet a lot of the time; and finally letting go into the world this little being we’ve loved and nurtured for so many years.

The very fact of being a parent inevitably brings an amount of anxieties. These often focus on feelings of guilt, of not being a good enough parent all of the time. I find it useful to think about an idea formulated by the paediatrician, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. In 1951 he called this idea the good-enough mother: in 2009 we can refer to it as the good-enough parent.

“The good-enough [parent]…starts off with an almost complete adaptation to [the] infant’s needs, and as time proceeds… adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability…” (1)

The good-enough parent stands in contrast with the “perfect” parent, who satisfies all the needs of the infant on the spot, and in so doing can actually prevent him or her from developing. In other words, it is good for your child to learn frustration. You can’t always be there answering your child’s every needs – and that’s exactly the way it’s meant to be. From such frustration the child learns tolerance, appreciation and acceptance. By seeing that parents are not always available children learn reality and begin the slow path towards independence and development. So we don’t have to be perfect parents; just good-enough ones. Seeking perfection is self-defeating.

I am often asked by parents if their little Johnny has been affected because of the times mum or dad have lost their tempers and shouted. I generally reply by asking if they made it up afterwards. The answer is always yes. ‘In that case,’ I say, ‘you’re giving a great lesson to your child – you weren’t perfect, then you said sorry.’ That is perfect modelling to a child of how relationships work. From these experiences a child learns that emotions are normal and tolerable.

Another useful idea to keep in mind is that of ‘attunement, rupture and repair.’ (2)  In an attuned parent-child relationship there is a mutual empathy. But at times there are ruptures in relationships, and we find ourselves losing tempers and shouting. Even sensitive parents can lose it now and again; the important thing is that they notice and repair the relationship. A repairing session can often be wonderful opportunity for a parent and child to remember how close they are, to feel the mutual love between them.

1. 1951 Winnicott D W, Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenonema
2. 2006 Golding, Dent, Nissin &Stott, Thinking Psychologically about Children who are Looked After and Adopted.

Dr Angela Evans

Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists