The idea comes from the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott who was born in 1896. In his book Playing and Reality, (London: Tavistock, 1971) Winnicott proposed the idea of the good enough mother. As might be expected for a man of his time, he saw active parenting, particularly of infants, as the domain of mothers. If we shift the concept into current times, and consider that the idea of good enough applies to the people/person who is actively parenting rather than gender, it is a useful way of thinking for all of us involved in parenting or working with children and young people.
In essence, Winnicott is suggesting that initially parents provide everything an infant needs. At times parents even anticipate what they might need. For example, mums and dads swaddle their babies and lie them down soon after a feed knowing that their baby often needs to sleep after eating. As parents settle into the routines of the new baby they may momentarily delay providing what is needed. A baby may be left to cry for a moment before mum or dad comes to get them up from a sleep because the caregiver may be playing with a sibling or completing a household or work task. As children grow and develop this becomes a familiar pattern in that the early total devotion to an infant isn’t possible to sustain in the real world of siblings, work and household commitments. Often parents feel guilty about this split of roles and responsibilities. The good enough parenting concept helps us to make sense of the realities of parenting. The delays in delivering what an infant and child want are actually a good thing. They help our infant begin to develop their idea of self-concept, that they are separate from their caregivers and helps them to feel secure in their relationships with their caregivers. They learn that when their needs are not satisfied immediately there is no cause for concern.
So next time your child demands your attention for entertainment or food or other and you have to say ‘in a minute’ or ‘not right now’ instead of feeling guilty pat yourself on the back and tell yourself that you are being a good enough parent and that is in fact being an excellent parent!
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.