I know what kind of parent I try to be: patient, thoughtful, easygoing, and joyful. And patient. I know I already wrote that. But my number one priority and desire for my parenting style is to be patient.
Life, being human, and actually being a parent makes it hard. So when I am not the mama I want to be, or think I should be, it feels like all systems fail. I yell. I nag and rush my kids through tasks. I am anything but patiently joyful. Then I feel regret and guilt. It feels like I am the failed system.
After the kids are asleep and my partner and I digest the day, I remind myself that I am not perfect. And anything less than perfect is still pretty good. In fact, there is scientific evidence that proves being good enough is just the right amount of good. Though written in 1987, the book A Good Enough Parent by Bruno Bettelheim feels like the message modern day parents need. Bettelheim encourages self-reflection so that parents can understand their children and their behaviors, thus allowing them to become the person they want to be and not the person we think they should be. The book is also full of reassuring reasons why we are probably already doing a fine job.
The concept of being a good enough parent stems from D.W. Winnicott, an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst, who believed that “ordinary” parents are doing a good job and don’t need the intrusion of numerous professional experts when it comes to raising children. He also believed that a parent’s focus should be on creating a nurturing environment where both parents and children can safely explore their authentic selves through play and creativity.
Bettelheim takes this theory of “normal” parenting and provides a guidebook on what it means to be good enough for our children. He explains that first we need to let go of perfectionism and says this, “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.”
In an article published on Psychology Today, Dr. Peter Gray interprets Bettelheim’s words this way:
“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.”
When we can let go of trying to be perfect, we can also let go what other people think of our parenting styles, because ultimately we, as parents, understand what is best for our children even when others don’t agree. Good enough parents understand their children, or at least try to understand them, by having empathy while allowing them to feel any and all of their emotions.
It is also important to focus on the present. The good enough parent is able to let go of idealistic views of our kids’ future. Instead, we focus on creating a happy childhood for our children. Happy kids who feel supported and secure in their relationships with their parents tend to grow up to be happy adults who are capable of making healthy connections with other adults and eventually children of their own. Our children’s future and the decisions they ultimately make are theirs, not ours. Good enough parents don’t save their children from failure. In fact, we are doing more harm than good if we don’t guide them through the learning process of natural consequences.
Keeping all of this in mind can feel daunting, but that is far from the idea. Good enough parenting is about compassion and maturity. It’s about accepting and coping with imperfections—because they are going to happen. Being a good enough parent means knowing we’re going to screw up, yet we still have the confidence to know we are doing a good job.
A good enough parent forgives him or herself and shows his or her kids how to react to life’s victories and defeats. Good enough parenting is about trusting our instincts when it comes to knowing what our children need. And it’s about giving our kids the space to develop their true selves.
All of this is a reminder for me to celebrate the fact that each day I am raising my kids in a loving environment where they are safe and feel safe enough to express their joy and exert their independence. The frustrations and disappointments are just as valuable as the shining moments in parenting. Everyone’s version of a happy kid and healthy family will be a bit different, but every version is enough.
Bettelheim also believes this: “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.”
When it comes to my kids, I want to be good enough.