Dona Matthews

Dona Matthews, PhD, has been working with children, adolescents, families, and schools since 1990, and has written dozens of articles and several books about children and adolescents. She writes a twice-weekly advice column for Parents Space, 'Ask Dr Dona.' Please send your questions to her at the e-address below. She'll do her best to answer your question as quickly as possible.

rsz mother and child 150x150 Be a Good Enough Parent: It’s Better than Being PerfectIt’s far better to be a good enough parent than a perfect mother or father. Many of the questions I get from parents concern their anxieties around not being perfect. They’re anxious that they’ll provide just the kind of food, support, stimulation, etc., that their child needs at just the time they need it, in just the way they’ll need it. They’re worried they’re getting things wrong, or not doing it right. In this column, I address the question behind many of the questions I get–how to be a perfect parent.

That anxiety about being a perfect parent conveys itself in lots of ways to a child through a parent’s worries, and her overfocus on control and protection. And of course, ultimately the parent’s anxieties show up in the child. A sad and vicious cycle where the parent who is most committed to her child’s welfare ends up with a child who hasn’t learned to cope with the realities of life, and has fears about his ability to cope.

The best parents are those who realize that being a good enough parent is the best objective. They have enough flexibility to bend away from their notions of perfection, and learn what their children really need. They come to understand what it means to be a good enough parent. Not a perfect parent, but a good enough parent. One who realizes that parenting, like growing up, has some built-in elasticity. Kids can tolerate a wide range of behaviours and situations from the people in their lives.

It is possible to be a bad parent, of course, one who neglects her child, or rejects him. One who—for one reason or another—doesn’t invest the love, time, and energy a baby and child needs. That’s far worse than trying to be perfect. But the good news is that being a good enough parent is not only desirable, it’s also attainable. Anyone can be a good enough parent through ordinary devotion, by providing her child with a consistent feeling of warmth, security, acceptance, safety, love, and stimulation.

Donald Winnicott, a paediatrician and child analyst, first used the term ‘good enough mother’ in the 1950s, in an age when mothers were almost always the parents in charge of raising kids. He talked about the good enough parent as an ‘ordinary devoted mother.’ He emphasized the importance of listening to one’s child and onself. He wrote about the good enough parent as valuing empathy, imagination, and love ‘between two imperfect people:’ her child and herself.

The concept of the good enough parent helped me immensely in coming to terms with my own failures as a mother. I knew that being a mother was the most important thing I would ever do in my life. I read all the books I could find on the topic. But no matter how hard I tried to be perfect, I always fell short. Life interfered, or my own imperfections did. Divorce complicated things immeasurably. When I tried to be a perfect two-parents-rolled-into-one, my anxieties multiplied. Reading about Winnicott’s notion of the good enough parent rescued me. It allowed me to relax a little, which took some of the pressure off my (almost-perfect) kids.

In addition to the notion of being a good enough parent, Winnicott had many other ideas that helped me, and are timely for today’s parents. He wrote about the importance of play and imagination in children’s healthy development. He described the use of security blankets and other transitional objects as helping children cope with separation, and as important bridges to independence and creativity. He argued that steady attention to a baby’s needs—whether for food, warmth, sleep, stimulation, or attention—allowed the baby to feel confident, calm and curious. Steady dependable attention encouraged the child’s cognitive development, because the child could learn without needing to invest a lot of energy into defenses.

Abandon all attempts at perfection. Being a good enough parent is a lot more fun for everyone. It makes for a child who’s better able to accept herself as she is and cope with life’s challenges, a parent who is more relaxed and self-accepting, and a family that is happier.

For more thoughts on being a good enough parent, and Donald Winnicott’s ideas about parenting:

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