The Good Enough Parent Is the Best Parent
If Goldilocks tried various parents, here’s the one she’d choose.
Posted December 22, 2015 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
If we define parenting as caregiving to one’s child, then the best parent is not the one who parents most, and certainly not the one who parents least, but the one who parents just the right amount. That’s the parent Goldilocks would pick, if she had tried out three different parents along with the three different bowls of porridge, chairs, and beds. It’s the one most children would pick if they had the power to choose.
I recently read for the first time Bruno Bettelheim’s book, A Good Enough Parent, originally published in 1987. I don’t agree with everything in the book—it’s a bit too psychoanalytic for my taste and I think he underestimates somewhat the reasoning capacities of children—but I agree with most of it.
The concept of the good enough parent came to Bettelheim from the writings of the British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott, although Winnicott was concerned just with mothers and his term was the “good enough mother.” Bettelheim not only generalized the concept to include both genders of parents, but also brought it down to earth, in a way that makes sense to regular people like me. [But see note at bottom about problems in Bettelheim's biography.]
This post is inspired by Bettelheim’s book. The ideas below may not match up entirely with his, but they come close. They are Bettelheim’s ideas as I have processed them. As I see it, and pretty much as Bettelheim saw it, good enough parents have the following characteristics:
Good enough parents do not strive to be perfect parents and do not expect perfection from their children.
In the preface to his book, Bettelheim wrote:
“In order to raise a child well one ought not to try to be a perfect parent, as much as one should not expect one’s child to be, or to become, a perfect individual. Perfection is not within the grasp of ordinary human beings. Efforts to attain it typically interfere with that lenient response to the imperfections of others, including those of one’s child, which alone make good human relations possible.”
One of the problems with the expectation of perfection is that every blemish, including those that one can do nothing about, becomes magnified. If you are a manufacturer of machines or furniture a search for perfection may be a good thing, because imperfections in machines and furniture can be corrected; but striving for perfection as a parent is not a good thing, because imperfections in human beings are unavoidable, they are part of the human condition. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what perfection might be in a human being.
The belief that perfection, or even something approaching it, is possible in parenting promotes a tendency to blame. The perfectionist reasoning is this: If problems arise, then they must be someone’s fault. Parents seeking perfection blame themselves, or their spouse, or their children when things are not just right. Blame never helps. Blame is the bane of every family in which it occurs.
Along these lines, near the end of his book, Bettelheim wrote:
“The erroneous modern conviction is that problems should not occur and that someone has to be at fault when they do; this causes untold misery within the family unit, aggravating the original difficulty and sometimes even putting the validity of marriage and family into question. … An ancient Chinese proverb says that no family can hang out the sign ‘Nothing the matter here.’”
Good enough parents do not worry too much about their imperfections. They strive to do the things listed below, but they recognize that they will not always succeed as fully as they might wish, and they forgive themselves for that. Good enough parents recognize that even love is never perfect; it is always at least somewhat fickle. In Bettelheim’s words, “There are few loves which are entirely free of ambivalence. … Not only is our love for our children sometimes tinged with annoyance, discouragement, and disappointment, the same is true for the love our children feel for us.” Good enough parents accept this as part of the human condition. Good enough parents understand that nature has created children to be quite resilient. We would not have survived as a species if that were not true. As long as parents don’t mess up too badly (and sometimes even if they do), the children will turn out OK, and OK is good enough.
Good enough parents respect their children and try to understand them for who they are.
Good enough parents do not think of themselves as the producers, creators, or shapers of their children. They see their children as complete human beings right now, and they see their job as that of getting to know those beings. They understand that the parent-child relationship goes both ways, but not entirely. It is a relationship between equals in the sense that the two parties are equally important, equally deserving of happiness, equally deserving of the opportunity to create their own goals and strive to achieve them (as long as such striving does not harm others). In another sense, though, it is an unequal relationship. At least when the child is young, the parent is bigger, stronger, wiser (we hope), better at reasoning; and the parent controls the resources that the child needs for survival. To make this unbalanced relationship work, the good enough parent strives to get to know the child, so as to understand the child’s needs and wants.
Children are generally not as good as adults at stating their reasons or arguing logically, so it is unfair for parents to expect their children to always give good reasons for what they do. The parent’s attempt to argue with a child leads too often to a verbal beating and shaming, which undermines the goal of understanding and support.
Here are Bettelheim’s words:
“The grown-up’s superior ability to argue and his greater command of relevant facts—so convincing to the parent—can be experienced by the child as simply the beating down of his opinion. … So the child feels outreasoned, and to be outreasoned is a frustrating and debilitating experience. It is a far cry from being convinced. …. Unless at least one side in a conflict is able to consider seriously the other’s point of view, there can be no satisfactory solution. … Therefore, the good enough parent will examine the child’s motives, try to understand his thoughts, appreciate his desires so as to comprehend what it is he [the child] hopes to gain, and why and how.”
To illustrate the matter of respecting and trying to understand the child’s view, Bettelheim gives an example of a parent-child conflict that is even more common today than it was at the time of his writing—a conflict about school performance. I’ll modify the example just a bit to put my own spin on it. Suppose your child is not doing his homework and is disobeying his teacher in school. The teacher calls you in for a conference, and, if you are a parent aiming for perfection, you are made to feel ashamed of your child’s “bad” behavior and ashamed of yourself for raising such a child. As one who believes that problems should be avoidable, you take the teachers’ words personally, and this might lead to a defensive berating of your child, which defeats any attempt to understand and truly help.
In contrast, if you are satisfied with being a good enough parent and have no illusions that perfection is possible, you see this problem for what it is, a problem to try to solve, not a tragedy, not an occasion for blame or shame. The first step in solution is to try to understand the problem from your child’s point of view. Because you respect your child, you do not immediately assume that his behavior stems from something wrong with him, which needs correcting. Your child may not be able to state clearly the reasons for his behavior, and may not even be aware of them, but that does not mean that there are no reasons or that the reasons are bad ones. It is quite possible that your child’s behavior in school represents something admirable. It may stem from a healthy desire to assert independence.
Here I return to Bettelheim’s words:
“If we as parents can empathize with, for example, the child’s need to assert himself by rejecting schoolwork, or his fear that he may become a puppet if he does as others wish him to do, then our attitude toward him will be entirely different from what it is when we attribute his lack of academic achievement to laziness or lack of ability.”
An insight such as this can lead to a positive, cooperative, relationship-building route to solving the problem, in which the parent and child think and talk together about possible solutions. Are there alternative ways that the child can prove to himself and others that he is not a puppet, while still doing his schoolwork at a passing level? Or, can the family find some alternative educational route for the child, which does not undercut his strong need for control over his own life and learning? The overriding point here is that respect for the child leads to an attempt to understand the child’s view, which, in turn, can lead to a workable solution in which the child feels supported rather than defeated. Even if a fully satisfactory solution to the problem is not found, the child at least gains from the understanding that his parents are on his side, not against him.
Good enough parents are more concerned for the child’s experience of childhood than with the child’s future as an adult.
It’s natural for all parents to have some concern about their children’s futures. We all want our children to grow up to be kind, moral, happy, healthy adults who can provide and care for themselves and others. But good enough parents know that the child’s future is the child’s responsibility, not the parent’s. It is the child, not the parent, who must determine his or her goals in life and route toward achieving them. The parent's job is to assure that the child has a satisfying childhood.
Good enough parents recognize that the best they can do to help their children toward a satisfying future is to provide the conditions required for a satisfying childhood. Children who feel secure in their relationship with their parents, who feel supported rather than controlled, who feel trusted and therefore trustworthy, and who have a good enough environment in which to play, explore, and learn (including plenty of opportunities to make friends and interact with others beyond the family), will be best able to chart their own satisfying futures. [This now is me, not Bettelheim.] Good enough parents understand this, and so they dwell on the present, not the future. A happy childhood leads, most often, to a happy adulthood; and an unhappy childhood leads, very often, to an unhappy adulthood.
Good enough parents provide the help that their children need and want, but not more than they need or want.
[This is the observation that comes most from me, though I suspect that Bettelheim would agree.] Children come into the world designed by nature to want to do as much for themselves as they can. That is how they move continuously toward adulthood. Good enough parents understand this intuitively, so they allow their children the freedom to take risks and to do for themselves what they can. Good enough parents allow their children to make mistakes and to fail, because they know that mistakes and failures are inevitable components of learning. When they provide help, they do so by supplementing and supporting the child’s own efforts rather than by taking over the task completely. The goal is to enable the child to do more himself or herself, to abet the child’s striving for independence, not interfere with it.
The primary tools of good enough parenting are conscious reflection, maturity, and empathy.
Good enough parents do not blindly follow the advice of “experts” or the latest parenting fads, and they are not overly concerned with how others judge their parenting. They are more likely to look for advice from friends and relatives who know them and their child well than from experts who don’t. Their purpose is to help their child achieve what the child wants and needs to achieve, not to prove to the world that they are wonderful parents or to protect themselves from criticism. To know how to best support their children, good enough parents strive to understand them, and the main tools for doing so are conscious reflection, maturity (which includes patience), and empathy.
As noted earlier, the parent-child relationship is in some ways equal and in other ways not. The parent is more knowledgeable, more able to figure things out, more mature than the child. Children, who already feel insecure, would feel far more so if they felt that their parents were no more competent to deal with the problems of life than they are. Maturity matters. Good enough parents know that they must go more than halfway to make the parent-child relationship work. It is the parent’s job to understand the child; it is not necessarily the child’s job to understand the parent. All parents were once children, so remembering their own childhoods can help parents understand their children; but children were never parents.
Here are Bettelheim’s words:
“Our memories of our own childhood will make us patient and understanding; and as we realize that despite our child’s obstinacy he suffers now as we suffered then, our love for our child, in whom we now recognize so much of our old selves, will, all on its own, return. … Good enough parents endeavor to evaluate and respond to matters both from their adult perspective and from the quite different one of the child, and to base their actions on a reasonable integration of the two, while accepting that the child, because of his immaturity, can understand matters only from his point of view. … Thus the good enough parent, in addition to being convinced that whatever his child does he does because at the moment he is convinced this is the best he can do, will also ask himself: ‘What in the world would make me act as my child acts at this moment. And if I felt forced to act this way, what would make me feel better about it?’”
I don’t think Bettelheim is entirely correct in his statement that children can only understand from their own points of view. I have seen even young children who seem to have remarkable insights about the workings of their parents’ minds. But I certainly agree with him that understanding the other’s point of view must be much more the parent’s responsibility than the child’s.
Empathy is the key to any successful relationship, and good-enough parents know that they must take the lead in empathy because it is easier for them to enter the child’s mind than for the child to enter the parent’s mind. Again, in Bettelheim’s words: “Empathy, so important to the adult’s understanding of the child, requires that one consider the other person as an equal—not in regard to knowledge, intelligence, or experience, and certainly not in maturity, but in regard to the feelings which motivate us all.” The parent’s understanding of the child’s feelings, and the parent’s respect for those feelings, is the first step to being helpful.
Good enough parents are confident that their good enough parenting is good enough.
Parents who feel confident about their parenting will be more calm and patient, less anxious in their parenting, and will thereby provide a greater source of security for their children, than parents who don’t feel so confident. In Bettelheim’s words: “The child’s shaky security depends, as he well knows, not on his abilities to protect himself, but on the goodwill of others. It is borrowed from the security of his parents. … Being a good enough parent hence requires that we ourselves be convinced that this is what we are.”
Near the end of the book, Bettelheim adds: “While we are not perfect, we are indeed good enough parents if most of the time we love our children and do our best to do well by them. This wisdom, or truth, can protect us against the folly of reflecting that everything a child does reflects only upon us. Much of what he does has mainly to do with himself and only indirectly or peripherally with us and what we do.”
This last point is about the value of humility. Good enough parents recognize that the child's universe does not spin around the parents. Our children’s actions are not motivated primarily by a desire to please us or to hurt us, but by motives that have to do with their attempts to find their own places in the world. If we are good enough parents, we don’t take much credit, nor much blame, for our children's actions; we just concentrate on understanding and helping where help is required.
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For much more on how children find their way in the word and how adults can help, see Free to Learn.
Note about Bettelheim
I am prompted, by an astute comment posted by "unschooling mom," to add this note about Bettelheim's biography: He was born in Austria in 1903 and because he was Jewish, he was put in a Nazi concentration camp after the German takeover of Austria in 1938. When freed, he immigrated to the United States and ultimately became a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. His reputation is marred on at least two counts: He claimed to have earned a doctorate from the University of Vienna, and this claim is now believed to be fraudulent. He also developed a theory that autism is the result of cold mothering, which has proven to be dead wrong. When I say that I like the ideas in Bettleheim's A Good Enough Parent, I do not mean to imply that I agree with all of his writings or that I admire all aspects of his character. It is not uncommon for people who have some good ideas to also have some bad ones.