Is ‘good-enough’ parenting relevant in 2022?

At My First Five Years, we believe in being realistic about parenting. We know what parents do is important for their children’s development, and we know parenting is amazing at times but hard work too. 

In this article, we’re analysing the theory of ‘good-enough parenting’ and its relevance to your parenting in 2022. The idea of the ‘good-enough mother’ was introduced by psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott in the 1971 book, Playing and Reality: 

‘The good-enough ‘mother’ (not necessarily the infant’s own mother) is one who makes active adaptation to the infant’s needs, an active adaptation that gradually lessens, according to the infant’s growing ability to account for failure of adaptation and to tolerate the results of frustration.’  

Donald Winnicott [1]  

 

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The ‘good-enough mother’: Winnicott’s theory explained 

Winnicott suggested that when babies are born, their mothers respond to their needs immediately and this response is important for the baby’s development.  

However, as the baby grows, their mother might not always respond immediately. Sometimes, waiting a few moments for their needs to be met enables babies to cope with a little frustration and can support their emotional development.  

Winnicott also suggested that a ‘good-enough mother’ will respond differently to her baby’s needs as she notices the baby’s ability to cope with a little frustration. When you think about your baby you might recognise this description. You might be aware as your baby grows and develops, that they need you to notice and respond to their needs, but this does not always have to be immediate.  

Winnicott described the ‘good-enough mother’ as mothers who are viewed as a babies’ main caregivers. Recently, the term good-enough parent or good-enough parenting has been used as these ideas apply to all parents, not only mothers. Winnicott explained why he didn’t use the term perfectly by explaining, “perfection belongs to machines, and the imperfections that are characteristic of human adaptation to need are an essential quality in the environment that facilitates.”[1] 

You can see Donald Winnicott was arguing that being ‘good enough’, rather than perfect, can successfully support your child’s development. What is important, in Winnicott’s view, is that you are aware and responsive to your baby or child’s needs. You know them well and recognise when they need an immediate response from you.  

In the first months of life, you respond quickly and soothe them when needed. The early, prompt comfort you provide helps them to develop the skills to briefly soothe themselves when they are older. As a good-enough parent, you are empathetic and responsive to your child’s needs. You can support them if they feel sad or angry and don’t feel you need to stop them from experiencing these emotions.  

Good-enough parenting is based on the understanding that responding to and supporting your child’s emotions is an essential part of helping them to become independent.  

 

Good-enough parenting and child attachment 

It helps to think about attachment alongside good-enough parenting: it can address concerns around good-enough parenting leading to feelings of parenting being simple, and not requiring effort. 

Psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed attachment theory in the 1960s. He suggested that babies were born with a need to form relationships with their main caregiver; although, as they developed, babies would begin to form multiple attachments.  

Bowlby argued secure attachment as a baby and child was important for lifelong development and wellbeing.[2] Later research confirms the importance of secure attachment for children’s development and wellbeing.[3] 

Bowlby’s attachment theory and Winnicott’s good-enough parenting share an understanding that responsive care is essential. When you respond to your baby’s needs with a cuddle or a feed, you are building this attachment. And as your child grows and you continue to respond to them, you strengthen this attachment.  

 

Good-enough parenting and child protection 

It’s understandable to feel concerned that the idea of good-enough parenting suggests that children’s needs are not being fully met. Sadly, we are all aware that some children experience parenting that is simply not good enough.  

However, it’s important to acknowledge that this theory is not suggesting parents neglect their children, but simply recognises that humans can’t achieve perfection all the time. Good-enough parenting is based on the understanding that parents are responsive, adapt to their child’s needs and show empathy. In fact, the concept of good-enough parenting is sometimes used by professionals to support parents in helping them meet their children’s needs.[4]  

 

What does good-enough parenting mean for me?  

When you read about theories first developed 50 or 60 years ago, you might wonder if these are relevant to your parenting in 2022. These theories have been used and tested many times over the years. Although there is discussion about some of the details of the theories, they are important and relevant today.  

We know secure attachment plays a key role in development. We also know babies and young children can form secure attachments if their parents or caregivers respond to them promptly most of the time. Your child relies on you and their other caregivers to provide a secure base from which they can explore.[5] 

It might be helpful to think about these four components of good-enough parenting. These components are the things your child needs beyond having their basic needs met. Your child doesn’t need you to be perfect, but they need you to provide these components reliably.[3]

 

Love, care, and commitment 

Your child needs to feel they are loved unconditionally. This links closely with the ideas about attachment, they need to know you provide a secure base from which they can explore. They need to know you will support them if they need support or comfort.

 

Limit setting 

Your child needs to experience clear, reasonable and consistent limits, which you maintain calmly and with love.

 

Support for development 

Your child needs you to respond to their emotional and cognitive needs. When you play, chat, or sing with them you are supporting them to develop.  

Recently researchers have begun to consider the idea of parental burnout.[6] Researchers suggest that burnout is not only linked to work but any situation in which you experience chronic stress. We all experience stress in our lives, and some stress can be good as it helps us to focus. However, chronic stress is when stress continues for a period of time and this type of stress can be harmful.  

Parenting is complex.  And you might find yourself concerned about paying the bills as the cost of living increases while wondering if the pandemic has had a negative impact on your child’s development. You might feel pressure to make sure your child has certain toys or that you are responding and interacting in the ‘right’ way all the time. The theory of good-enough parenting can help to ease the stress of parenting and reduce the pressure caused by aiming for perfection.  

 

My First Five Years and realistic parenting 

At My First Five Years, we know how important parents are in supporting their children’s development and wellbeing. We also know parenting feels hard sometimes, so we talk about realistic parenting.  

We believe informed parents can be empowered to do their best for their children. You can read more about realistic parenting and how this links with the theory of the good-enough parent on our blog page.  

 

Read more about realistic parenting in our blogs:  

“I felt like an imposter” – how I learnt to embrace realistic parenting (mffy.com) 

Learning from the everyday – five examples of development that can happen within your daily routine (mffy.com) 

Keeping it real - our view on parenting (mffy.com) 

 

Download our app for more support and information 

You can read more about your child’s development and get ideas about how you can support them by downloading our app. Our app helps you to notice and celebrate the skills your child masters. You can also use the scrapbook in the app to remember the moments as well as the milestones, and you can join our My First Five Years community to chat with other parents and our experts.  

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References 

[1] Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Routledge.  

[2] Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and loss. New York: Basic Books 

[3] Hoghughi, M. & Speight, A.N.P. (1998). Good enough parenting for all children – a strategy for a healthier society. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 78, 293-300.  

[4] Taylor, J., Lauder, W., Moy, M. & Corlett, J. (2009). Practitioner assessments of ‘good enough’ parenting: factorial survey. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 18, 1180-1189.  

[5] Woodhouse, S.S., Scott, J.R., Hepworth, A.D. & Cassidy, J. (2019). Secure base provision: a new approach to examining links between maternal caregiving and infant attachment. Child Development, 91(1), 249-265.  

[6] Roskam, I. Brianda, M-E. & Mikolajczak, M. (2018). A step forward in the conceptualization and measurement of parental burnout: the parental burnout assessment. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 758.