What It Means to Be a Good Enough Parent
Making the world better for your kids.
Posted March 4, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
When I was pregnant and reading every book I could find about parenting, a friend and mother of four introduced me to the concept of “good enough” parenting, a term coined by British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.
“Good enough” was such a relief: All I had to be was supportive, consistent, protective, and lenient enough. I didn’t have to be perfect, which my generation seemed to have adopted as the standard for parenting. Sure, I wanted to be a great mom, but good enough sometimes had to be good enough, particularly during some tough years.
But I soon found myself wondering what it really meant to be good enough. The world had changed since Winnicott coined that phrase, and over time, good enough took on new meaning.
During, and following, the years that I raised my now 26-year-old son, I began to realize that being a good enough parent meant protecting not just my son, but his planet; not simply providing him with opportunities to succeed in life, but with the prospect of a sustainable future.
It’s a truism that parents are their children’s first teachers and role models, but I came to understand that in the face of melting glaciers and ice caps, the rapid extinction of species, dying coral reefs, burning forests, climate refugees, and more, parents must be role models of sustainable living and solutionary thinking and action. They must be able to show their children what they are doing to protect the ecosystems that allow life to flourish.
It’s not necessarily what parents sign up for when they have or adopt children.
As a humane educator who has been teaching young people about global ethical issues related to human rights, animal protection, and environmental preservation for more than 30 years, I’ve known many children and adolescents who’ve gone home after school to teach their parents how to be better stewards and protectors of the planet. That was sweet when the crises facing the Earth were less understood and imminent. Now, it’s not so sweet.
If we allow our children to face the catastrophic impacts of climate change – to teach us as if we had and have no role to play – I fear that we are not being good enough parents.
What this means in practice is that we parents have a responsibility to learn about the impacts of our choices on the environment – from the foods we eat to the energy we consume to the products we buy – and to make the most sustainable choices we can. Further, we need to participate in systemic change, not only because there are limitations to the impact of our personal choices as individuals, but also because systemic problems require systemic solutions.
That might sound like a daunting new version of the parenting perfectionism my generation began, which has caused so much unnecessary anxiety and stress, but while I was raising my son and realizing the existential threat that climate change, species extinction, and habitat destruction posed, I discovered that striving to be a positive role model for my child could be deeply rewarding. Teaching our children how to be adept researchers and fact-checkers; critical, systems, strategic, and creative thinkers; and solutionaries motivated to make the world a better place for all life prepares them in profoundly important ways for a meaningful and successful future, while building positive relationships within our families and communities.
We risk losing our children’s respect if we are not honestly considering their future and doing what we can to make it sustainable, just, and peaceful. While they may carry our family behaviors forward as a matter of habit, it is inevitable that they will learn about the impacts of our typically destructive lifestyles and diets and come to us ask why we aren’t trying harder to live sustainably, and why we aren’t doing our part to address and solve the challenges in our world.
It doesn’t feel good (or good enough) when that happens.
The hard truth I learned while raising my son was that good enough parenting might no longer be good enough. The silver lining was this: Being part of the solution doesn’t have to be a burden on the already weighty role of parenting. Rather, it can be an invitation, one that will help you and your children build a thriving world where integrity and a sense of purpose are their own rewards.