In Praise of the Good-Enough Parent

The good-enough parent is an expression created by the British child psychologist D.W. Winnicott (1896–1971) and it is something everyone who works with children should be guided by. Winnicott’s studies of mothers and children, in particular, led him to urge young mothers to rely on their natural abilities to care for their infants, to learn from their errors, and to not worry about being a perfect parent. Dr. Claudia Gold, in her recent book Keeping Your Child In Mind, notes that Winnicott acknowledged that though mothers are quite attuned to their infants they are not so all the time:

“. . .a mother is most attuned to her child in infancy, when he is most dependent on her, but becomes less so as he grows into a more complex, separate human being. These failures of attunement are not only inevitable, they are in fact a very important part of facilitating a child’s healthy emotional development . . .”

Gold then quotes Winnicott:

“There are genes which determine patterns and an inherited tendency to grow to achieve maturity, and yet nothing takes place in emotional growth except in relation to the environmental provision, which must be good enough. It will be noticed that the word “perfect” does not enter into the statement—perfection belongs to machines, and the imperfections that are characteristic of human adaptation to need are an essential quality in the environment that facilitates.”

Gold summarizes this: “The mother who fails at times to be attuned to her child, facilitates her child’s healthy development.”

In this age of demands from experts that children and parents must be pushed to use more personal rigor, excellence, and high standards in their work and lives it is a relief to be reminded that healthy parents and children are quite capable of learning and growing together without lots of anxiety and fear about whether they are learning and growing correctly.

Winnicott writes in his wonderful book, Talking to Parents:

Not Idealism

“I must be careful. So easily in describing what very young children need I can seem to be wanting parents to be selfless angels, and expecting the world to be ideal, like a suburban garden in summer with father cutting the grass, and mother preparing the Sunday dinner, and the dog barking at an alien dog over the garden fence. Of children, even of babies, it can be said that they do not do well on mechanical perfection. They need human beings around them who both succeed and fail.

"I like to use the words “good enough.” Good-enough parents can be used by babies and young children, and good enough means you and me. In order to be consistent, and so to be predictable for our children, we must be ourselves. If we are ourselves our children can get to know us. Certainly if we are acting a part we shall be found out when we get caught without our make-up.”

When Winnicott discusses teaching he reaches a conclusion that sounds like John Holt talking to homeschoolers:

Danger of Teaching

“My problem is to find a way of giving instruction without instructing. There is a limit to the value of being taught. Indeed it is important for parents who start looking into books for advice that they know that they do now have to know everything. Most of what goes on in the developing individual baby or child happens whether you understand it or not, simply because the child has an inherited tendency towards development. No one has to make a child hungry, angry, happy, sad, affectionate, good or naughty. These things just happen. You have already finished that part of your responsibility and have laid down the details of your child’s inherited tendencies when you chose your partner, and when the one spermatozoon penetrated the one egg. At that fateful moment the book on heredity was closed, and things started to work themselves out in terms of the body and mind and personality and character of your child. This is a matter of physiology and anatomy. The way these things work themselves out is extremely complicated, and if you wish to do so you can spend your life on an interesting research project connected with human development; such work will not, however, help you with your own child, who needs you indeed.”

I like Winnicott’s division of responsibility about raising children; he claims the process of growth belongs to the child and the environmental provision belongs to the adult:

“If you stand back and watch you soon see the developmental process at work, and you get a sense of relief. You have started up something that has its own build-in dynamo. You will be looking for the brakes . . .

“Your special place as the environment and the provider of the environment . . . The environment you provide is primarily yourself, your person, your nature, your distinguishing features that help you to know you are yourself. This includes of course all the you collect around yourself, your aroma, the atmosphere that goes with you, and it includes the man who will turn out to be the baby’s father, and it may include other children if you have them, as well as grandparents and aunts and uncles. In other words, I am doing no more than describe the family as the baby gradually discovers it, including the features of the home that make your home not quite like any other home.”

Winnicott sees the early environmental conditions of infancy as the groundwork for a child’s personal security and health. Healthy, secure children, he writes:

“. . . develop enough belief in themselves and in other people to hate external controls of all kinds; controls have changed over into self-control. In self-control the conflict has been worked through within the person in advance. So I see it this way: good conditions in the early stages lead to a sense of security, and a sense of security leads on to self-control, and when self-control is a fact, then security that is imposed is an insult.”

“Security that is imposed is an insult.” What a great insight from the last century, yet one that few adults today follow. Today's child-rearing practicies make adults feel that they are doing something wrong if they are not actively managing children's lives for their own good.

Winnicott notes that all children need to experience and master the “internal stresses and strains inherent in emotional growth” largely on their own, but it is the adults’ responsibility to insure the children’s environmental provision. Interestingly, in his list of failures below, Winnicott doesn’t cite education as an element lacking in young children’s environmental provisions:

“These failures can be described in terms of unreliability, destruction of trust, the letting in of unpredictability, and a once and for all or a repeat pattern of the breakup of continuing of the individual child’s line of life.”

Being reliable, trustworthy, and providing security for children is well within the means of the good-enough parent; why must we make parenting more complicated than that?