How To Be A “Good Enough” Parent
Mr Tom Selleck in “Three Men And A Baby” (1987). Photograph by Touchstone Pictures/Shutterstock
Nurturing a child from birth to adulthood means navigating hurdles that push us to our limits and, as helpful as our parents or antenatal pals can be, we’re often left to figure out its fundamentals on the fly. Parenting is also incredibly pressured. That might come via the cult of the perfect parent – the polished perception some give of their offspring and child-rearing abilities, whether at the school gates or on Mumsnet forums. Or it might be from deep dives into the psychology of parenting, whether Dr John Bowlby and Dr Mary Ainsworth’s groundbreaking work on attachment theory or Ms Sue Gerhardt’s seminal Why Love Matters, all of which can leave us certain that however we approach parenting will screw up our children for life.
Luckily, alternative texts exist to help alleviate these pressures. The Good Enough Parent by The School of Life is an illuminating new compendium of teachings that approach parenting in an encouraging, philosophically engaging way. From its many valuable lessons, developed to help raise contented, interested and resilient children, here are five takeaways that all parents could benefit from.
Parental flaws are par for course – and that’s no bad thing
If parents take just one lesson from this book, Dr Richard Vincent, the clinical lead for The School of Life’s psychotherapy service, says it’s that being “merely good enough” is fine. “‘Perfect’ parents create headaches for their children, setting standards against which both parent and child would likely feel like failures,” he says, adding that those parents who are flawed, but kind, do their children an enormous service by preparing them for the world as it is.
Instead of perfection, we should aim to become a “good enough” parent, a term first coined by English paediatrician and psychoanalyst Dr Donald Winnicott in 1953. “The world our children are born into is imperfect, full of nuance and contradiction, and to strive for perfection is to set oneself up for failure, worry and regret,” says Mr Toby Marshall, head of The School of Life Press. “A good enough parent is one who understands that and prepares their child for the life ahead through love, the best of intentions and – often – mistakes.”
Nurture (and impart) your emotional maturity
“Babies are often inhumane and unkind to their parents, leaving us feeling persecuted and squeezed from every angle,” says Vincent on the psychological challenges new parents face. “With the addition of fatigue, we can often regress back to child-like ways of dealing with things.”
The Good Enough Parent helps us tap into a higher emotional maturity by exploring the transition between infant and adult. The child may still believe that it is the centre of the universe but, hopefully, the parent has long since realised that isn’t the case. An infant may lack understanding that its body – through tiredness, hunger, sugar consumption – influences its moods. A baby’s vociferous rages when its needs aren’t met often give way to diplomacy by adulthood. Part of the role of the parent is to impart this “emotional curriculum” with patience and love, recognising that a child has to go through every stage of juvenility in order to arrive at maturity.
Allow curiosity to flourish
It’s suggested that a child’s greatest gift to us is to keep insisting that nothing is normal. As recent arrivals, everything to them is new, interesting and worthy of examination. Comparisons are drawn with our adult experiences of travelling to an unfamiliar country – where mundane scenes fill us with wonder – and artists; Mr Albrecht Dürer’s “Study Of Three Hands” and US photographer Mr William Eggleston’s studies of suburbia illustrate how great works are often made by people able to look at the world with the naivety of children.
The Good Enough Parent notes that, as adults, we rarely have the time to stop and observe the world with similar interest and, in our rush to get on with our day, we risk sending the message that being curious is not a worthy activity. It advises allowing the child to ask its questions and to pop as many things as safely possible into its mouth. For those questions we don’t know the answer to, we could consider hatching a plan to find out together and perhaps keep a list of topics for enquiry close at hand.
Naughtiness is not always a cause for concern
Most so-called “bad behaviour” isn’t actually that at all. Instead we’re asked to view it as an unhelpful but understandable response to not being heard for what they have not yet been able to say clearly and diplomatically. “Naughtiness can often be a way of finding independence and discovering feelings,” says Marshall, adding that naughty children can grow up more creative because they are used to trying out ideas that may not receive immediate approval, or making a mess without the worry that it will be a disaster. “A child that is always ‘good’ may have a whole range of emotions inside that they keep out of sight because they feel they don’t have the option to be tolerated unless they are rigidly well behaved.”
These children may go on to encounter issues with rigidity, a lack of creativity or excessive compliance because they have not, at an early age, been permitted the space to be spontaneous and learn resilience. The book encourages us to learn to see the “occasionally naughty” child as being healthy and to reassure ourselves that their lack of perfect behaviour is, in the long run, helping them find a stable balance in life.
Recognise the nuances of parental love
While the vast majority of parents experience a never-felt-before love for their offspring, we’re encouraged here to consider the principles of parental love – and how it might differ from other relationships. “Parental love is so important but maddeningly difficult to define,” says Dr Vincent. “But when it persists over the years it helps children navigate the often-confusing process of growing up.”
Described as considerate, tender, patient behaviour towards a child who cannot help but be largely out of control, parental love might involve a sense of forgiveness that puts generous interpretations on behaviour that seems grating to others; a respect for their vulnerability and lack of ability to communicate their traumas; or accommodating strange phases, knowing that “weirdness” is part of normal development. It’s also, critically, the understanding that this love can sometimes be unreciprocated, but may ultimately be rewarded when the child evolves into a very good parent themselves one day.