What’s ‘good enough’ parenting?
Stop beating yourself up about not doing it right. There are no gold medals to win.
Sue Jameson (centre) and Denise Guidera (second from the right) with members of the Dublin 7 Cuidiu Breastfeeding support group in Phibsboro. Photograph: Alan Betson
The “good enough mother” was a notion that was promoted by paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott when he started broadcasting parental advice on the BBC in 1943.
Like his contemporary, Dr Benjamin Spock, Winnicott believed in a mother’s intuition: “It is when a mother trusts her judgment that she is at her best,” he said.
However, it is a message that often seems to be lost in the ever-swelling tide of “expert” child-rearing advice since. So-called parenting “gurus” clamour to offer “solutions” to the problems of family life, with the effect of undermining rather than bolstering parents’ confidence.
Whether it’s feeding or sleep routines, discipline or socialisation, we fret about where we might be going wrong. And the modern phenomenon of delayed parenthood raises the bar ever higher – if we have waited this long for a child, we want to make sure we do it by the book. The only question is, whose book?
We’re convinced that somebody, somewhere has the quick fix for our daughter’s sleeping problems, for the tedium of toilet training, or for our son’s inability to heed the word “no”.
What the current generation of parents has done differently is to surround ourselves with information and maybe that is not always a good thing, says Sue Jameson of Cuidiú. Listen to the pointers given by experts by all means, “but don’t let that cloud your own feelings about where your child is going as no one knows your child as well as you do”.
Grannies said exactly the same thing in a recent poll in the UK. More than a third of respondents to a survey by Grannynet, a social networking site for grandparents, believe that parenting gurus have eroded natural maternal abilities and stopped mothers thinking for themselves.
Not surprisingly, the majority consider themselves, as grandparents, to be best placed to give parenting advice to their children.
According to Verity Gill, the founder of Grannynet, many grandmothers feel new mothers are getting very confused and hung up on advice issued by the overwhelming amount of parenting books available.
“We think it’s important for mothers to be encouraged to discover their own inner instincts – something books can overlook,” she said.
Seventy years on from Winnicott’s broadcasts, Jameson will speak on Parents Under Pressure – Is Your Best Good Enough? at this weekend’s national conference of Cuidiú, a parent-to-parent voluntary support group. So what is “good enough” parenting?
“For us good enough is adequate – not having to do everything,” explains Jameson, who would like to help relieve parents of the pressure we put on ourselves, stemming from societal ideas about what good parenting involves.
If you happen to live in certain areas of Dublin, “then good parenting involves 55 extra-curricular activities all running simultaneously, all timetabled on a big chart on the kitchen wall, and the children have very little down time,” remarks Jameson. “That is not something we would subscribe to because children, in order for brains to grow, need lots of free play and free time, making their own entertainment.”
The merit, or otherwise, of scheduled activities for three year olds was raised last week by a poster on the Irish parenting discussion forum Magicmum and drew a mixed response. While some contributors to the thread talked about their three year olds doing swimming, football, Irish dancing, drama, ballet, multilingual play sessions or music classes, others argued that at that age they didn’t have the necessary concentration for classes and that they could pick up skills through play at home.
“There is no gold medal for competitive parenting,” says Jameson. “There is no gold medal for my baby gained weight faster than yours, my baby was standing before yours . . . every baby is an individual, every child is an individual and they will get to their milestones when they are ready.”
However, hearing other parents talk about their children’s achievements can be seriously guilt-inducing, she acknowledges. “Parents worry they are not doing it right, they are not doing enough.”
Another recent poll across the water – and it is unlikely to be very different here – found that almost half of working parents feel their parenting isn’t good enough during the week. They only have half an hour to spend with their children after work, compared with more than three hours spent commuting, cooking dinner and doing household chores.
Over a third of parents (37 per cent) admit they struggle to switch off from work mode at home and almost half (45 per cent) worry about chores while they are reconnecting with their kids.
Jameson is an advocate of close parenting – “being present” – but, especially as children grow older, this does not necessarily have to be for great stretches of time. What’s important is ensuring that you are fully present with your child in the time available – not keeping one eye on your Facebook account and simultaneously going over tomorrow’s work presentation in your mind.
The only thing we really want to achieve in our parenting is a relationship of trust, then the door is always open. That is not to be confused with the constant hovering of “helicopter-style” parenting.
“You do not need to be ever present,” says Jameson. You need to be present when a need is indicated. In the first couple of years, it’s all needs with a child – wants come later.
She dismisses the notion that you can spoil a child with too much physical closeness.
“All you are doing is meeting needs and the needs are there as a biological imperative, they are not at the whim of a baby or a child,” she points out.
There is no necessity for a parent to be a super anything, she argues. “All we want to do is lead a life where both parents and child feel reasonably fulfilled, so we’re not running around in this stress mess saying ‘this isn’t working, that isn’t working, why isn’t he doing this . . .’ Once you get this cycle of stress going, you have high levels of cortisol and babies are very sensitive to parental stress.”
Parenting in isolation is a “soul destroying activity”, says Jameson, who encourages new parents to find community support through organisations such as Cuidiú. “You need validation that you are doing okay, you need somebody to say ‘Look at Johnny . . . isn’t he great’?”
Time and time again she sees the burden of worry lift from stressed parents once they discover other people have similar concerns and struggles with their offspring.
“We can alleviate a lot of that by just normalising what is going on. It becomes a problem if they don’t tell anybody about it; if they spend too much time reading someone else’s opinion on how their child ought to behave.”
She would like to see more of the madness and fun put back into parenting. “I see the younger parents get this – whereas the 35-plus are the worthies who have greater difficulty with that.”
Parent and relationships mentor Sheila O’Malley of Practical Parenting is bemused that so many people who come to her workshops use the “naughty step” – a technique beloved of Supernanny Jo Frost.
“I ask is it working? And the answer is no. Then I ask them why are they doing it – because Supernanny says so.”
As far as O’Malley is concerned, the only person who needs time out at the moment the “naughty step” is invoked is the parent. The response of the child is usually either not caring or knowing why he or she is there, or great upset at being abandoned by the parent.
Relationship is more important than behaviour, she says in response to the question what is “good enough” when it comes to parenting. “We are all trying to do our best with what we’ve got.”
All parenting starts with the parent, so know yourself first, she advises, and then you can know your child. Also look to how you can care for yourself, so you have the reserves to care for others.
Never confuse a child with his behaviour. “Being bold” doesn’t equate to a “bold child”.
“I always say there is no such thing as negative behaviour, only protective behaviour,” she explains. If a child is hitting out – who hit him? Not literally but metaphorically.
A parent who understands that acting out is a child’s way of responding to some hurt, is going to approach the problem very differently from one who sees it solely as the crossing of an imposed boundary.
Both O’Malley and Jameson stress the importance of letting children express their feelings and really listening – even if they seem like an indictment of your parenting.
“Bite your tongue if you hear yourself trying to dismiss what the child is putting out,” says Jameson and resist from saying “this is not what we do in this family . . .”, as she has heard trotted out on occasion.
As the child gets older, his or her personality type will emerge and their opinions and behaviour may not conform to yours.
But your job as a parent, she adds, using the old adage, is to “give them roots and wings”: the stability to leave the nest with confidence. That’s good enough for any child.
Sue Jameson and clinical psychologist and broadcaster David Coleman will be the main speakers at the Cuidiú Positive Parenting, Positive Support national conference on Saturday in the Stillorgan Park Hotel, Dublin, 9.30am- 1.30pm, which is open to non-members.
For more information and tickets (€10), see cuidiu.com