Psychoanalysis 3.0

Building a practical philosophy of self-knowledge for the 21st century

Don't let the Tiger Mom get to you! "Good enough" is better than perfect.

What's been missing in the recent media storm

By Nancy Freeman-Carroll, Psy.D.

The tale of the "Tiger Mom" swept through the news—and the treatment rooms of many psychoanalysts—like wild fire.  But the really interesting story remains mostly hidden behind all the bluster; striving to be a good-enough Mom rather than a perfect one is not a pale compromise, it's actually pretty great when you understand more of what parents do for, to and with their children. 

The Tiger Mom story stirred up so many people—especially mothers—because being a Mom is such a hard job. All mothers fall down on the job one day or another, and when they do, they (we) worry about the effect they (we) are having on their (our) children.  Chua's account of her intense responses to her daughters reminds every mother of the moments she has screamed in exasperation, frustration, or disappointment.  But Chua goes further. She actually advocates for more of that bad behavior if you make really high demands for excellence along with with it; if you are perfectly demanding, you will get the perfect child you demand!

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The story seems now to have been part publicity stunt, part joke, and maybe part truth.  Let her sell her books. Not my business. But as a psychoanalyst, I am troubled by the role assigned to mothers; mothers, Chua warned, need to demand more from their children or they will be ruined. She forgets that good-enough is good-enough, and she forgets about the mutuality and reciprocity that goes into achieving the at times seemingly unattainable status of good-enough.

A good enough mother frequently fails to do a perfect job.  She can be unsympathetic, insensitive, or lack warmth because she is tired, depressed, or simply busy with the balance of taking care of herself, her job, as well as her family.  But her strength is in her capacity to re-right mistakes, to re-establish the swing of a mutual loving relationship, and, especially, to talk about her experience and introduce words that help her children understand their own feelings and behavior.  Missteps happen all the time even in the earliest months of life—as mother and baby learn each other's rhythms, and mothers become more adept at reading the cues to their baby's emotional and physical states.  Later, there will be many misunderstandings, or lost opportunities for being in sync with each other—for feeling understood—as there are conflicts between the interests and imperatives of children and parents.  

Current psychoanalytic attitudes emphasize that the struggle to resolve, repair and understand experience is central to the mother's role.  The give and take, the ups and downs of everyday life provide many opportunities for mothers to fall and get up again, and this going on and making sense of our experience instills hope and a belief in the goodness of the world.  Without mistakes we would not share our sense of being human, of the struggle it is to understand another person, and the pleasure that comes from connection.

Children need mothers, not drill instructors. And mothers need to know that aspiring to be good enough truly is good enough. The truly good news getting lost is that it is not the perfect, but the good enough mother who wins the day, and walks home with the trophy of happy, successful children.

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About the Author:
Nancy Freeman-Carroll, Psy.D. is a Supervising Analyst at the William Alanson White Institute in NYC, and clinical supervisor at several psychology graduate programs.  She has taught courses on Psychoanalytic Theory, Infant Development, and Mother-Infant Communication at psychoanalytic institutes in New York City, including Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, and National Institute for the Psychotherapies. In her clinical practice, she works with individuals, couples and families, including parent-infant treatment.  She has a special interest in women's health, and families created with assisted reproduction.

© 2011 Nancy Freeman-Carroll, All Rights Reserved

The Psychoanalysis 3.0 Writing Group is a network of forward-thinking psychoanalytic writers organized by Todd Essig, Ph.D. of the William Alanson White Institute.

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