Raising a child is one of the things that we all want to get right. Parents feel a huge amount of pressure to do things right all the time. But doing things right all the time, is impossible. Kids don’t come with an instruction manual and so sometimes mistakes are made. Other pressing needs (perhaps other children) and our own needs mean that compromise is required. Striving to do things right all of the time, to be ‘perfect parents can lead to strong feelings of worry, guilt, resentment, unhappiness, and shame.
What if I told you that not only do we not need to be perfect parents, but that it is good for our children if we’re not?
Enter Good Enough Parenting.
Good Enough Parenting is a concept coined by Dr. Donald Winnicott in the 1950s. Winnicott, a British Paediatrician and psychoanalyst who studied mothers and babies, found that it is good for parents to become somewhat less responsive to their children’s needs as they grow older and become more independent. Winnicott found that meeting the child’s needs just 30% of the time is sufficient to create happy, well attached children. And that doing so boosts their resilience.
Separate research by Edward Tronick, famous for the ‘stillface’ experiments, came to similar conclusions. Tronick noted the variable nature of a parent’s attunement to their children’s needs (i.e. how in tune parents are to their emotions and needs). He found that imperfect attunement is consistent with healthy attachment. Tronick said that in a typical healthy parent-child relationship, the parent is perfectly in tune with the child around a third of the time. Another third of the time, parents struggle to work out what is wrong with their child and so are unable to meet their needs. This might be when kids are angry or crying and we don’t seem to understand why, and so they must soothe themselves and recover on their own. The final third of the time, which Tronick judged to be the most important for creating healthy attachment, is when parents are not initially in tune with their children’s needs but work to become attuned. This experience provides a safe experience of distress and resolution, which promotes general resilience.
The consistent theme running through both strands of research is that imperfect parenting is better for kids. The world is an imperfect place, filled with lots of disappointments and setbacks. In relationships with others, it is normal to have our needs met only imperfectly. Not being a perfect parent helps our children develop resilience and autonomy to function in life. In addition, modelling imperfection may help our kids to accept their own imperfections.
Parenting is hard and real life requires compromise. That means that it’s often not possible to meet all of our children’s needs. The point of Winnicott and Tronick’s work isn’t that we should not try so hard (though for some that may be true). The point is that we should look after ourselves and be kind to ourselves when we fail. So stop worrying about getting it right all of the time. Try to let go of those feelings of guilt when you do get it wrong. And look after yourself: enjoy your coffee and food when it’s hot, and make sure you shower every day (or maybe take an extra minute or two for yourself from time to time).
By doing these things, by being ‘good enough parents’, you will feel happier, be a better version of yourself, and enjoy the experience of parenting more. But it isn’t just good for you; the favourable outcomes you experience will likely filter through to creating a more positive environment for your family too. A true win-win!
Written by Pip Johnson, Clinical Psychology Registrar