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Good Enough Parenting

Being perfect is unrealistic. Being good enough is all you (and your child) need

Key points

  • Most new parents get inundated with advice and warnings.
  • This can create a lot of unnecessary stress and fear.
  • Focusing on good enough parenting can relieve the pressure and improve the parent-child relationship.
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

While pregnant with my first child, I was flooded with mommy blogs, prenatal websites, and other parents explaining what to expect, how to be the best parent, and even how you could unintentionally ruin your child's life. It all produced anxiety, and I hadn't even given birth yet. Fast-forward to itting in the delivery room holding my first-born child in my arms—I'm overwhelmed with joy and possibilities, but as soon as we were told we could head home with our baby, the anxiety started coming back: Do I know what I am doing? What if I mess this up? What have I gotten myself into?

The process of being indoctrinated into parenthood is both exciting and scary. We are given more information than ever before about what we need to be doing to ensure our children succeed — Tummy time! Breast milk! Stimulation, but not too much! Eat this, not that! Read all the time so their brains don't atrophy! Get your kids in team sports yesterday! If you don't do it, your child will fail! — it can make any parent feel like they are inadequate.

Now, for some good news.

Most of what you read and what others tell you to do doesn't really matter.

I'm a child psychologist, researcher, and teacher at the University of Arkansas and a mother of four. Being a mother has allowed me the lived experience of knowing the pressure that modern parents feel, but being a child psychology researcher has given me insight into what really matters at the end of the day. So, when my colleague, psychologist Tim Cavell, asked me to help him finish a book he had been writing about being a "good enough" parent, I jumped at the opportunity.

What do we mean by "good enough" parenting?

We want to champion the "ordinary" parent, as most parents already have the capacity to promote their child's development. In fact, the main job of parenting is to manage the parent-child relationship over time. We argue that this is done by building a foundation on three important concepts: goals, health, and structure.

1. Goals

Parenting goals are specific to what parents do in their role as parents. This is distinct from the goals parents have for their children or their children's future — which, we argue, can often get in the way of having a good parent-child relationship. Instead, parents can benefit from setting clear, explicit goals for parenting, such as how they want their relationship with their child to look and how they want to conduct themselves while parenting. If you notice that you often get into arguments with your child, you may want to start here to determine what you want from the parent-child relationship.

2. Health

We already hear the collective eye roll from some parents reading this: "But who has time to take care of their health when you're a parent?" We know. But hear us out. We frame health broadly (e.g., physical, mental, relational) but emphasize parents' emotional health.

We draw from the science of emotion, including the fact that emotions are functional, to educate parents about strategies for enhancing their emotional health and well-being. As parents, we might be quick to get frustrated when our kids do something unsafe, but we encourage you to pause and explore what that frustration might be hiding. Are you actually angry, or is that anger hiding fear or sadness?

Pausing to dig deeper into our emotions may provide us with some valuable information that we can then share with our children. Further, we also introduce the concept and practice of mindfulness and discuss the value of mindful parenting practices. If we are more thoughtful about how we react (while keeping our parenting goal in mind), we may act to strengthen that relationship rather than reacting ineffectively in the moment.

3. Structure

We define structure as how parents organize their home and family. Structure includes things like rules, routines, roles, and rituals. Each promotes beneficial parenting practices and helps prevent parenting disruption during times of stress and upheaval.

For example, rules help establish what is important to a family. Having clear rules will communicate how both children and parents are to interact with one another or contribute to a family. Families that lack routines or small ways to create structure (what to expect in the morning or after school, for example) may end up with a more chaotic life and increase the number of hurt feelings or arguments that arise.

Roles within the family help create clear boundaries between parents and their children. Responsibilities may shift within a household over time but knowing that parents shoulder the stress of making decisions for the family will help reduce confusion about what stresses children take on. Also, things like rituals for big events may help create a sense of love and feeling special in the family.

If the foundation is set, the job of parenting is done through three core features of a socializing relationship: accept, contain, and lead.

  1. Accept: Accepting, ideally, is the default mode of parenting. To accept children means taking the time to get to know them as they truly are; it means believing in, loving, and valuing the whole child; and it means delivering a consistent message of belonging and a persistent effort to understand them. In this way, children have little doubt about where they stand with you. For a child, accepting includes feeling emotionally valued while they become their own person.
  2. Contain: Containing are parental actions to reduce the likelihood of child misbehavior. If you are a parent who is often overcome with emotion when containing their child, we suggest an effective containment script that includes the parent's use of calm instructions, warnings, and sanctions (e.g., timeout). We also add a fourth component, called "reconnecting," which refers to repairing (post-sanction) the emotional fabric of the parent-child relationship if damaged by a disciplinary encounter (like a timeout). We also note that the overall quality of the parent-child relationship limits parents' efforts to contain their children. The upshot for children who are hard to manage is that effective discipline is selective discipline! What do we mean by selective discipline? We mean that parents should be thoughtful about what behaviors are most important to address (what they need to get their butt off the couch for) rather than feeling like they need to address every little issue. For example, you may not need to address your child's whiny voice or attitude, especially if the relationship is already strained… in the end, attitude will not predict how your child turns out. However, you should get up to address acts of aggression or violence, as research demonstrates that these can lead to bigger problems down the road.
  3. Lead: The last pillar is leading, which refers to the extent to which parents actively discuss or demonstrate their values and provide children with a healthy, kind, benevolent, and philanthropic example that is worth following. We aren't suggesting you preach to your child, but essential values that promote kindness, giving, or connection (for example) may be more important than hairstyle, dress, or more superficial areas.

So, what does this all have to do with being "good enough"?

Well, it means that it isn't so important that your child is the best dressed or the best athlete. It doesn't really matter if you correct your child every time they make a socially awkward comment in public. It doesn't really matter if you answer every one of their questions correctly (I know I once learned why the sky was blue, but it's been a while, OK?) or have them eat all the right food or join all the right afterschool activities...

What matters most is keeping the goal of having a positive parent-child relationship at the front of everything you do. This often requires that you are well taken care of yourself (health) and that you set yourself up for success by creating structure in your life to encourage positive moments and reduce chaos (dinners together, when possible; important family discussions; opportunities for special occasions and traditions). It also means that you love your child without conditions (accept) while still setting clear expectations that may need to be addressed if they are harmful or unkind (contain). Finally, it means being a good leader (lead) by simply living a life in line with positive values. It doesn't mean you do everything right all the time (and how you do each of these things will depend on the unique characteristics of you and your child); it just means that you are "good enough" most of the time. Rest easy knowing "good enough" is enough.

For more, see our book, Good Enough Parenting.

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