Are you a “good enough” parent? How can you tell?
A friend was telling me yesterday about some conversations she’s had with her niece, who is the mother of a one-year-old. The young mother seems to be in a sort of “mother’s arms” race with her friends, who vie to find the latest thing that absolutely must be done for the baby, the toy that must be bought, and the classes mother and child must be involved in. My friend’s niece is getting pretty exhausted but fears the consequences of giving up the competition. So, my friend, quoting me quoting Donald Winnicott, said, “all you have to do is be a Good Enough parent.” (Actually Winnicott talked about a Good Enough Mother, because this was before fathers became parents.)
But the niece cut through all these fine words by asking, “How do I know whether I’m a Good Enough parent?” Friend and I were both stymied by this one, and I resolved to try to give it some thought.
The idea that you just have to be “good enough”, not perfect, in parenting is really derived from what we know about young children’s physical growth. If a child has a normal, “good enough” diet, he or she will grow to the height dictated by genetic characteristics. Giving the child an even better diet, with extra vitamins, protein, and so on, will not make the child grow taller than the limits set by heredity. On the other hand, a less than “good enough” diet will result in less adequate growth and diminished stature relative to genetic possibilities, in childhood and adulthood. This gives us a pretty good idea about what is a “good enough” diet, because we can see direct effects of diet on growth in height (and even more importantly, growth in head size).
All right—now we have a useful metaphor to guide us in thinking about being a “good enough” parent. You know a diet is “good enough” when the child grows as is typical, or that it isn’t “good enough” when growth is slowed. What can we look at in the child that will tell us whether the parenting is “good enough”?
This is an answerable question, but like many points about development it depends: it depends on age. This may be chronological age for typically-developing children or developmental age for children with challenges, but it’s critical to understand that indicators of good development will be different for different ages. We would not expect a two-week-old to make eye contact with a parent, but we do expect that from a two-year-old. We would expect a two-week-old to show a strong startle reflex, but we would have reason to worry if a two-year-old still showed that reflex. It’s different strokes for different folks… of different ages.
Let’s look at what might be some good indicators of “good enough” parenting and resulting development for a one-year-old. These aren’t all the possibilities, but they are ones that come to mind as important and pretty easy to observe.
- Has the child’s growth, including growth in head size, been typical since birth, according to the growth chart kept by the pediatrician?( It is not important that everything be at the 99th percentile, but it is important that the child stay at or above the percentile that was indicated in the early months.)
- Is the child working on motor achievements like pulling to stand, bearing weight on the legs, or even independent walking? (It does not matter if the child has never crawled or if other motor achievements like rolling over have been delayed relative to “the book”; if the baby has been sleeping supine, they probably have been a bit delayed )
- Is the baby interested in familiar people? Does he or she explore your face, put a finger up your nose or in your mouth, grab for your glasses or earrings?
- Is the baby starting to feed himself, with finger foods or spoon, with bottle or cup?
- Does the baby play peek-a-boo, either by watching breathlessly as you hide your face or by covering her own face and then popping out joyously?
- Do the baby and a parent have at least ten minutes in a row of fun together at least once every day? (You can count games at feeding or bath time provided you both enjoy them.)
- Does the baby communicate by pointing, by facial expression or moving the head away from something, by vocalizing?
- Does the baby look where you look or pay attention to words you use by looking for an object?
- Does the baby look for an object you’ve hidden while she watched?
- Does the baby throw or drop things and watch what happens to them? (This includes food, full sippy cups, etc.)
- Is the baby very rarely apathetic, uninterested, disengaged, lethargic?
- Can you usually comfort the baby when he cries?
- Does the baby look or move to you when something scary happens?
If the answers to most or all of these questions are “yes”, you can figure that what you have been doing is Good Enough. Your baby’s development is showing you that you are providing the needed environment, so just keep on with what you’re doing. But please keep three things in mind. One is that you may have been doing an excellent parenting job, but if your baby is chronically sick, injured, or developmentally challenged in some way, the results of your good parenting may not be as obvious as you’d like. The second is that, once again, these questions are age related. A six-month-old will not do the same things as a one-year-old no matter how good the parenting is, and a two-year-old will have moved along in many ways. The third is that—just like what we saw about extra protein—extra toys, CDs, videos, classes, and toys will not make the baby’s development extra good; in fact, concentrating on those extras may rob a baby of the pleasant daily routines that are the foundation of cognitive and emotional development.
Dr. Spock once said that bathing a feverish baby in cool water worked just as well as an alcohol rub, but it “didn’t smell so important”. Being a parent whose everyday caregiving is really “good enough” may not smell as important as chasing the latest toys and classes, but it may work even better than the fads do.
Jean Mercer, Ph.D., is emerita professor of psychology at Stockton University, where she taught courses in child and infant development for 30 years. She is the author of a number of books on child development issues, including Attachment Therapy On Trial, a discussion of the death of a 10-year-old girl in an “alternative” treatment. Her Childmyths blog is at http://childmyths.blogspot.com. She has two grown-up sons and two grown-up stepsons, three grandsons, and now a long-awaited granddaughter.