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What Does It Mean to Be a Good-Enough Parent?

With parenting, as with so much else, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Hideaki Takemura/Unsplash
Source: Hideaki Takemura/Unsplash

Good-enough parents don’t strive to be perfect parents; nor do they expect their children to be perfect. This message is more important than ever now, when so many parents are feeling a heightened anxiety about their children’s future.

The “good-enough mother” was first described in 1953 by D. W. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst who argued that the good-enough mother was better than the perfect mother. She starts off fully available to her infant, but gradually adapts to the infant less and less, in response to the young child’s growing ability to deal with the mother’s absence. That way, the young child learns to deal effectively with the frustrations of reality.

In 1987, Bruno Bettelheim wrote a book called A Good Enough Parent, in which he built upon Winnicott’s ideas, and argued that parents should avoid trying to create the child they would like to have, but rather they should help their child become the person the child wishes to be. Bettelheim wrote: “Efforts to attain [perfection] typically interfere with that lenient response to the imperfections of others, including those of one’s child, which alone make good human relations possible.”

When problems arise, the perfectionist looks for someone or something to blame. But blame is never useful, whether it’s directed at oneself or someone else. According to Bettelheim, perfectionism “causes untold misery within the family unit, aggravating the original difficulty and sometimes even putting the validity of marriage and family into question.” Similarly, Carol Dweck argues that blame never leads anywhere good. In Mindset, Dweck quotes legendary UCLA basketball player and coach John Wooden as saying, “You aren’t a failure until you start to blame.” If his team lost a game, Wooden didn’t want to hear grumbling about the referee. He wanted to hear plans for doing better next time. Mistakes and defeat were acceptable to him, but blame was not.

How to Be a Good-Enough Parent

In the beginning, your baby needs someone totally dedicated to meeting their needs. But as they get older, their needs change:

  1. Be good to yourself. You can’t do everything. Don’t aim for perfection in your parenting—it is impossible, and will only frustrate you. Aim to be good enough right now, today.
  2. Smile at mistakes and imperfections. You are human. Your child is human. Your partner is human. You will all make mistakes, and that’s OK. It’s through our mistakes that we learn to do better.
  3. Respect your child’s individuality. Listen to your child. Deeply listen, with your heart as well as your ears. Work to understand them for who they are, no matter how different than you.
  4. Focus on problem-solving. Don’t blame anyone, ever. Not yourself, not your child, not your partner, not the weather. Just focus on making things better.
  5. Provide the help your child needs and wants. Be loving, present, and available, but don’t try to give your child more than that. Being a helicopter parent or a tiger mother is exhausting, and it’s counterproductive in the long run.
  6. Trust your child to figure it out. The best way for your child to learn the coping skills necessary for surviving and thriving in a challenging world is to figure out how to deal constructively with problems. The best time for them to learn that is when they are young, in the safety of their parents’ home.
  7. Look for the best possible reasons for your child’s misbehavior. When your child does something you think of as wrong, look for what good impulse or need might have directed that behavior. Perhaps they need more information about what you want from them. Perhaps they are cold or hungry or sad. Kids don’t always know what they’re feeling or thinking, much less have the ability to express that coherently.
  8. Celebrate and support your child’s enthusiasm. Your child may enjoy doing something you don’t value; they may have no interest in the activities that interest you. Whether it’s sports, crafts, music, academics, politics, or something else, respect and support your child’s interests.
  9. Focus on today, not tomorrow. Pay attention to your child’s experience of childhood, not on their movement toward adulthood. Find a school where they can enjoy learning, rather than one that will give them the best credentials going forward.
  10. Trust yourself. Good enough parenting, in a context of love, patience, and empathy, really is good enough.

A good-enough parent doesn’t take credit or blame for their child’s actions. They just love them for who they are.


To Be Good Enough,” by Savithiri Ratnapalan.

The Good Enough Parent Is the Best Parent,” by Peter Gray.

What Is a Good Enough Mother?” by Marilyn Wedge.

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