I have three daughters, now ages 20, 17 & 12. Before my eldest graduated from High School back in 2020, I would visit with up to 14 teachers during conferences. I remember at one such week of back to back teacher conferences, several of their teachers said, in almost identical language, that my girls are very “self-advocating.” At first I wasn’t sure how to take in this information. It felt a bit like a back-handed compliment.
When I shared by bewilderment about the teachers’ comments with a friend, she recommended I google pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who researched thousands of mothers and their children back in the 50’s and came to realize that children actually benefit when their mothers “fail” them in manageable ways (not major failures of course, such as abuse or neglect). He was the first to proclaim the benefits of being a “good enough” parent in the long-term growth and well-being of our children.
When our babies are infants, we do our best to respond to their every need. As soon as they cry, we rush to snuggle, change or feed them – offering immediate comfort. Our response at this age is crucial in teaching our children that they are safe and will be cared for. But, of course, this level of attentiveness cannot be sustained, nor should it be according to Dr. Winnicott’s study. In fact, he said the best thing we can do is slowly become “good enough” parents. In other words; our children actually need us to fail in tolerable ways on a regular basis so they learn to live in an imperfect world.
He states that every time we don’t hear them call us right away, are unable to give them our full attention, feed them a dinner they don’t particularly enjoy or are unable to attend a concert or game, we are preparing them to accept and function in a world that will quite regularly frustrate and disappoint. Our children learn, through our “failures” that the world doesn’t revolve around them, that life isn’t always fair, that they won’t always get their way. But they also learn that despite life’s inevitable disappointments and conflicts, they will still be okay.
Even if it were somehow possible to be the “perfect” parent (whatever that might look like), the end result would be a fragile child who is unable to cope with even the slightest disappointment. The gift of the “good enough” parent is that perfection is never offered as an option, rather our children learn to accept, expect and rise above the challenging experiences of anger, boredom and sadness. Resilience is the great gift of the “good enough” parent.
Are our children safe, fed, clothed and loved? Are we getting it right most of the time? If yes, then we need to be gentle with ourselves and trust that when our kids feel annoyed or frustrated or sad because we have let them down, that in those many small moments, they learn that life is hard, that they can feel terrible, and that they will bounce back. Each time we disappoint and they get through it, Dr. Winnicott’s research tells us they will be a little bit stronger for it. I like Dr. Winnicott. In fact, I’d like to hug him and have him over for dinner.
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