Just good enough
Who wants to be average, or worse below average, and more so who wants their child to be there? Yet we all know that half* of us will be ‘below average’ so it’s not unusual and is it actually bad?
The expectation nowadays is that we will strive to excel. That we will try our hardest to be the best that we can be. Now, when we do that alongside realistic expectations and the ability to get satisfaction from what we do achieve, we can feel content and fulfilled. The reality, as we know, is a little different. From the very start of life we are measured. From newborn baby weight though school assessments, to university and vocational qualifications, to appraisals.
The media tells us that to raise healthy, happy, well-adjusted children we must sacrifice something, that we can’t have it all. Something, be it career, personal time or parenting, has to give. It starts early; having a natural birth is viewed as a gold standard, breastfeeding as the right choice for everyone. No doubt these are right in many cases but not doing these things isn’t a failure. If you aim for these you can only fail, you can’t do the best of everything. You don’t have the time, energy or resources because the goal is always unachievable. If you try you will push yourself, and your children too far, relationships and work will suffer.
The alternative is to ease off the gas a bit, to relax and make a conscious decision to aim for easier goals, to be just good enough. This might mean that short term achievements are less but that the benefits of contentment, satisfaction and ultimately greater mental well-being are enhanced.
The concept of the ‘good enough mother’ came from the writings of Donald Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst and paediatrician who defended the ‘ordinary parent’ against a growing trend for intrusion from a variety of professionals. His idea was that, by providing the right amount of nurture to their child, parents could help their children move from seeing their parents and the world as idealistic to having a realistic and resilient frame of mind about their environment. Every parent will identify with their child’s changing perception of the world, initially parents know the answer to every question, and yet before you know they discount you as a source of top quality information, preferring YouTube and Wikipedia.
The ideas of Winnicott were applied to both genders and made more accessible by John Bettelheim who, in the preface to his book ‘A Good Enough Parent’ 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.”
So how do you practice good enough parenting?
Don’t try to be a perfect parent and don’t aspire to your children to be perfect either. Imperfection is part and parcel of being human and if it’s not achieved you’ll look for reasons and ascribe blame. That is damaging when it comes to both child development and relationships.
Respect your children for who they are. They aren’t empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge and behaviours from you. They are complete human beings. Although there is an imbalance of power whilst they are children and you are the parent provider, they are equally deserving of happiness and the ability to create and aim for their own goals.
Provide love, care and commitment. Let your children know that you love them for who they are, not what they do. It sounds easy but be sure to praise carefully. Help them with homework. Comment on what you’ve learnt whilst helping them and how well they are persevering, not on the marks they get. Make sure they know that you are committed to them and do praise the process of doing not the product or result.
Allow them to become independent
I’ll cover more of this in a later blog but don’t live your life vicariously through their achievements. Let them set their goals. Just because you’re a lawyer, doctor or a teacher doesn’t mean your child should be. Their adult world will be very different to yours. Support them as they acquire new skills, those are the things that will allow them to take the opportunities that interest them.
Give them enough support to allow them to grow their skillset, scaffold them to get to the next stage and step back, allowing them time to see what they can achieve before your step in.
Facilitate their development. Provide what they need, that is stimulation when very young and opportunities when they are older but don’t fill their time. Leave space to be, even to the stage of getting a bit bored. Time is essential for creativity. I don’t mean in the artistic sense, I mean in finding solutions to new situations which is far more useful in the long term than answering questions in an exam. Remember that your best childhood memories are usually of playing with friends, without adults and usually outside with open-ended resources.
Trust your instincts. You know your child and family better than any expert. By all means seek advice from several different sources but then critically assess it and decide which bits will fit your beliefs and which bits won’t. What is right for one family isn’t right for the next. Your child will thrive on a mix of home cooking, ready meals and fast food just as well as they will on a diet of organic vegetarian homemade meals.
Give them love, care and commitment. Set consistent boundaries. Exactly where those boundaries are is less important than being consistent, so work out which ones sit with your personal ethos and when your child is old enough explain that rationale clearly and, in general, stick to it. Children feel safer with known rules but they must see them as fair.
Also fair doesn’t mean equal. If one child needs more help than another then giving them unequal assistance is the right thing to do.
Your goal is to raise your child to become an independent, responsible member of society. In the long run not having a strict bedtime routine, allowing them the occasional fast food meal or not making them do homework when it’s snowing won’t affect how they turn out. Having a parent who has a proportional response to life, who loves them but doesn’t live their life for them and who they have a supportive relationship with will affect the adults they become.
Doing OK is really good.
OK allows downtime. Chatting is as important as discussing, ambling is as important as striding. Look at the big picture, take the long view. You want a healthy, happy child. To be that they must learn to regularly take stock of what they’ve done and be pleased with it. To know that they can do OK and their parent will be proud of them. To know that to help and be kind to other people they must help and be kind to themselves.
As working parents, you bear the weight of expectations and opinions on all sides. From your boss, your work colleagues, your friends, family, your children, their schools and the media. You can’t please them all so don’t try, choose what you believe in and practice it. Like learning any skill, you will get better with time, you’ll find some advice useful and will assimilate some of it and disregard some.
The news is full of the consequences of children and young adults not feeling like this, value yourself, trust yourself and teach your child to be able to do the same.
*I know it depends on which measurement of average you use, but suspend your academic rigour and go with the flow!
Thank you for reading my blog.
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W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World(Penguin 1973)
Bruno Bettelheim, A Good Enough Parent, originally published in 1987.
Photo’s by Alice Chapman Photography