Thursday, October 25, 2012

What is a Good-Enough Parent?

Psychologist, writer, and researcher Bruno Bettelheim coined the term "good enough" parent. It's a useful one.

It reminds parents they don't have to be perfect to do a really good job at parenting. It gives parents hope, because most insightful, conscientious parents are able to reflect on their own shortcomings as a parent. Sometimes it isn't until we become parents ourselves that we develop more compassion for our own parents, ourselves, and parents everywhere who not only are raising children, but also trying to support the financial needs of the family, balance work and family, meet multiple children's needs, and  stay happily partnered. Parenting is a big job if it's done well.

Sometimes part way into living out the dream of having a family, loss occurs. There may be a death or a divorce which creates even more challenges: moving, financial stress, single parenting, more isolation, and even less support. The parenting needs to continue, and sometimes there is hardly time for a parent who is going through loss or crisis to catch their breath. Conversely, having children to rally and refocus for after a huge loss can be helpful and grounding. I am often supporting people in just this situation in my counseling practice, and try to help the person see their role in helping their children through a family crisis as a good choice for their attention, as opposed to dating again right away, or something else.

As a family therapist who has worked with children, teens, and families for more than 20 years, here are some of the traits I think good-enough parents need:

1.      The ability to apologize when you blew it, overreacted, etc. –sincerely, and from the heart.

2.      Being present, as much as you can and still support the family. Being present also means that you are available emotionally, not focused on an addiction or your own compulsions.

3.      Listen more than you talk. Most parents lecture far too much, especially with teens. If you listen more, you'll be amazed at how your child or teen may open up more.

4.      Follow through. Do what you say you are going to do. Be count-on-able. My own children are in college and have launched into adult life, and I still feel that being a parent of your word is critical to your credibility with your child.

5.      Have traditions and rituals for connecting with your children and family. Think mealtimes, family activities you do together, worshipping together, one-on one dates with your child/children, homework help.

6.      Be your authentic self. A parent with good self-esteem, a sense of purpose, and a sense of humor all make you more real to your children. Express yourself with your own little twists that are uniquely you. I personally love serving breakfast waffles for dinner sometimes to mix it up, and love playing the board game Apples to Apples with the whole family. Hmmm, that gives me some excellent ideas for when my girls are home Thanksgiving weekend from college!

7.      Be consistent. Try your best to have regular meals, bedtimes, and homework times. Try to set and enforce clear family rules fairly and calmly. Speak softly and carry logical consequences.

8.      Encourage your child. My theory is that each child is different (have you ever noticed your differences from your sibling, if you have one?) Our job is to figure out who we've been sent, and how to help them develop their natural strengths and interests.

9.      Do not compare. Don't compare your child to their siblings, to you at their age, or to their friends. All of those comparisons create distance between you and your child, tension between siblings, and are not useful. Communicate to your children that they each have a special and unique place in your family and your heart.

10.  Don't give up. Some stages are magical in the parenting journey. Others are heart-breaking and upsetting. You are the parent, and good-enough parents go the distance.

11.  Be warm. Express your love for your child. Point out their strengths. It is in childhood that we learn to attach successfully with others, because we first learned how to securely attach to mom and/or dad.

12.  Play together. Can you remember when your parents played with you, or taught you to do something they enjoyed? Those positive experiences put something into your account with a child, so that when you have to discipline, there is something on account from which to withdraw.

So the good news for parents is: you don't have to be perfect. You can be good-enough, and that's just fine. As Bettelheim wrote, "not only is our love for our children sometimes twinged with annoyance, discouragement, and disappointment, the same is also true for the love our children feel for us." For everything to work, we don't have to be perfect as parents, and our children don't have to be perfect for us to love them either.

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