The Good Enough Parent
We refer to the theorist Donald Winnicott and his concept of the “Good Enough [Parent].” Essentially, this concept addresses how necessary it is for us to be in tune with our children (understanding and meeting their needs) while also leaving space for separateness. It is so beneficial for children to experience what it feels like to exist in space without us, free of what we might project onto them. The message that we want to send is, “I can be me and still stay connected to you.”
Another way to look at this concept can be to give yourself permission to fail and let go of this idea that you have to fix, change, or remove all your children’s obstacles. It’s not our job to keep our children happy at all times.
The concept of the “Good Enough Parent” plays out during scenarios of child-led play. One example, your child is playing with blocks and you are sitting nearby reading or checking your email. Occasionally, you and your child smile at each other creating a nice balance of togetherness and separateness at the same time. Your child asks for help with their block tower, you lovingly tell them to keep trying and that once you are finished with your email you can help them. This provides an opportunity for your child to explore their own capacity while also knowing that you are supporting them. This is the foundation for building a true sense of self within your child. Who are they in relation to you?
Children need to find their own opportunities to form opinions and feelings about their environment, rather than have them be labeled by others. Being by themselves actually builds a foundation for an adult who trusts in themselves, rather than one who constantly relies on others for everything that they need. In order to be a good parent, you have to show up and be present for your child, but sometimes you can only be good enough and should be. Separateness is inevitable and essential for your child to begin building their internal true self.
Tied into this concept is what is called “Empathic Failure.” As we all know, empathy comes with the territory in parenting. We put our child’s needs before ours all of the time, and we model empathy to our children so that they can then begin to learn it for themselves. And what is also important, is for children to experience what it feels like to not always be met with immediate empathy. Sometimes they will be let down by their precious caregivers.
This is the way the world works, we cannot expect our needs to be 100% met by others all of the time. In life, we have disappointments, and how we navigate these hard realities is what creates more resiliency. It is important for our children to get acquainted with this in early childhood, to experience empathic failures from their caregivers.
For example, perhaps your child scribbles on a piece of paper and makes what they feel is the most magniﬁcent piece of art ever created. They are eager to show you, anticipating how delighted you will be about their work. You are on a very important phone call and do not have a spare moment to engage. Instead, you tell your child to please go play, I’m on the phone right now and your focus quickly goes back to your conversation.
Once you have ﬁnished your call, you look down to see your child’s drawing on the ﬂoor, realizing why they were vying for your attention. You pick up the piece of paper containing multiple scribbles, walk over to your child, and talk with them about what happened. You tell them “I see that you drew this picture and you were excited to show me. It must not have felt very good when I told you to go play instead of looking at it together. I was busy then, but I would love for you to show me now.”
This is known as the “Rupture and Repair.” When we fail to give our children the attention and empathy that they desire (which we inevitably will), it is OK, as long as the empathic failure is followed by the repair. “I couldn’t be there for you then, but I love you and I am here for you now.”
This relationship with your child is healthy and essential so that your child can learn how to be an empathetic adolescent and adult.