By Peter Gray Ph.D.
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:
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 ofchildhood than with the child’s future as an adult.