Good Enough Parenting: Parents in the Real World

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS

Good Enough Parenting

Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

You may have heard the phrase “good enough parenting” before. It was first coined by the late paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1896-1971). He believed that the good enough mother made mistakes, but was able to repair and readjust following these mistakes. (Fathers did not get much of a mention in those days, unfortunately.)

Understanding good enough parenting

Good enough parenting involves doing your best and getting it right most of the time, whilst recognizing and changing things when you don’t get it right. Children need to have at least one good enough parent or caregiver, to be emotionally healthy and safe. Many lucky children have multiple good enough caregivers – for example, two parents and several grandparents.

If you can do the following, then you are a good enough parent:

  • Identify your child’s physical and emotional needs, and do your best to meet those needs. For example, take your child to the doctor or dentist when she needs to go. Get him to school every day.
  • Spot when your child is upset, anxious or overtired, and try to respond with empathy.
  • Provide warmth and nurture to build an attachment with your child.
  • Notice when you have made a mistake, and try to repair the damage. For instance: “I shouldn’t have shouted. I will go and see if he is okay, and read him a story to settle him.”

Good enough parenting may involve (for example):

  • Having to put your child in front of the TV or iPad for a few hours while you get some work done, but planning to spend more quality time with her as soon as you can, to make up for it.
  • Saying no to a play date or spontaneous invite sometimes, because you feel exhausted or have too many other commitments.
  • Watching your child “fail” at something and not knowing how to handle it.

Perfection in parenting

In a world where social media only shows us the shiny, perfect bits of people’s lives, it is tempting to think that we have to try to be the perfect parent. Aiming for perfection is dangerous for a number of reasons.

Reason one

Firstly, there is no such thing as perfection. Allow your child to stay up late one day because it is a special occasion, or ensure he has a solid, consistent routine and goes to bed at the same time every night? There is, of course, no “perfect” answer. The parent aiming for perfection may choose the second option, but this limits spontaneity and flexibility, not to mention fun. If your child is not exposed to spontaneous events, he will have less chance to learn how to cope with these.

Reason two

Secondly, “perfection” limits opportunities for your child to build resilience. If her world is too perfect, your child will not know that she can bounce back when things go wrong. She will not learn to cope with emotions like disappointment, regret and sadness.

I have worked with a number of children whose lives were “too perfect”. Please note that I do not blame their parents for this in any way, as they were doing their very best, and doing many things very well! Anyway, these children had become anxious because they were terrified of failure, sadness and disappointment. They had never really experienced these things before. Together we worked to explore and expose them to the things they feared, in a graded and safe way.

In short, perfect parenting will not prepare your child for the real world.

Reason three

Thirdly, there is a danger that you become a perfect parent, at the expense of your own needs or your identity. Here’s a made-up example:

Janette is a keen runner, and goes to a running club twice a week, as well as running three times per week when her children are at school. She feels guilty that she cannot be around at bedtime on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and her husband has to manage both children. However, having a hobby and identity outside of family life is healthy for Janette and makes her a happier, well-rounded parent. It also sends positive messages to the children about exercising for health, and allows her children to see her as a role model in many ways.

The concept of good enough parenting can guide you from day to day whenever you have doubts. You snapped at your child this morning when he didn’t eat his breakfast and he got upset. Both of you had recovered by the time he went to school. You feel guilty. However, he has had valuable experience in learning that adults do not always “get it right” in their responses, and that you have clear boundaries. He has also had important exposure to emotions such as frustration, perhaps sadness. This will help him learn to be skilled in handling them in future. The experience may have helped him develop empathy, realising that adults sometimes respond more strongly when something is going on in their lives such as stress or tiredness. The mistake was recognized and things were repaired. Good enough parenting? Yes.

Child protection

Most parents are good enough. Even most parents who think they are not good enough, are. However, child rearing is so difficult, and parents struggle for many reasons that are often not their fault. For example, physical or mental health problems, or difficult life events, can make it very difficult for you to be emotionally or physically present for your child. Some parents cannot recognize their child’s needs. Others cannot provide enough warmth and nurture to help the child feel safe. If you do not think that currently you can provide good enough parenting for your child, you must admit this and seek help.

What to do if you cannot be a good enough parent at the moment

Tell someone. Do you have family members who could provide you with emotional support, or practical support? Your GP will be able to help you access support. Your child’s teacher may be able to point you in the direction of more support. A GP, teacher or other professional can also make a referral to children’s social care. You can also seek directly by looking up your local children’s social care department.

Children’s social services help when a child has experienced abuse and neglect, but they can also help when parents are struggling to cope, or “signpost” you to other organisations who can help. You can find more details about the process here.


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