At some point every parent experiences that moment when the weight of being a parent really sinks in. We realise what an important job it is. That what we do as parents will influence our child now, and into their adult life. As a result the pressure increases to get it perfect.
The Pressure to Parent Perfectly
The premise suggests that if we could parent perfectly, we could create the perfect life for our child; and they in turn would be perfect – and grow up to be happy; resilient; well-adjusted; emotionally stable; and a problem-free adult.
This pressure to do the best is born out of love but also fear. The fear is more palpable if our own parents’ parenting fell short, or if we blame our upbringing for things we don’t like about ourselves. This can have parents promising themselves, that they will do it better, and that they won’t repeat the same mistakes their parents made.
The desire to be a perfect parent may come from the misperception that other parents’ are parenting perfectly. That other parents: never get angry; don’t stop loving their children unconditionally; solve all problems without an argument; and easily manage any crisis. These perfect parents know an enormous amount about: child development; child psychology; nutrition; communication; and discipline. This isn’t the reality.
There’s plenty of information telling parents how to get it just right – If there’s any doubt, just do a Google search. Here you will find advice on every aspect of raising a child – and how to do it right. The message mothers and fathers may take from all of this is that there is a right ‘perfect’ way to do things. Do it the wrong way and you may damage your child.
In the 1950’s the British Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott recognised that it was unrealistic to require perfection from parents, and that the majority of parents where “good enough” at meeting their children’s needs, coining the term “good enough parenting”.
Winnicott’s ‘good enough parent’ was focussed on being a parent that: payed attention; was responsive to their child; and adequately met their child’s needs. This parent provided a ‘holding environment’ in which they gave both physical and emotional care. It was about meeting: physical care; housing; nutrition; safety and protection, but also about meeting children’s emotional needs. Winnicott noted that good enough parents were: concerned; interested; and available, when their child needed them. From this secure base, independence, emotional stability and resiliency developed.
It was about the responsiveness of the parent in the relationship at meeting their child’s needs. This responsiveness, led to a secure attachment between parent and child. Children who have a secure attachment as infants are more likely at later ages to be confident, resilient, cooperative, caring, and able to manage their emotions in an acceptable way.
Attachment typically develops gradually over the first year of a child’s life and is the product of repeated interactions between the parent and child. When the baby gives a cue or signal, such as a cry, outstretched arms, or a smile, and the parent responds appropriately to those cues, the baby begins to feel secure.
There are two main signs that an attachment is secure: 1) your child readily turns to you at times of distress and finds comfort in your arms or in your reassurance; 2) your child uses you as a secure base from which to go out and explore the environment, returning to you when they need comfort or reassurance.
Attachment is strengthened if parents are in tune with the signals of their child and in their ability to meet these needs. Repeatedly reading and appropriately responding to the cue from your child, gives your child a sense that they can obtain emotional comfort, and praise, which leads to building their self-esteem and a sense that the world is positive and safe place. Do we need to respond to those cues perfectly for a secure attachment to develop?
Parents cannot perfectly provide their child with comfort for every distressing event; or delight in all moments of exploration. It is impossible for a parent to be perfectly in tune to their child all the time.
Tronick and his colleagues, found that parents were only correctly attuned to their infant’s emotional state about 20-30% of the time. Tronick called this being ‘in sync’. It is impossible for a parent to be completely, and perfectly, attuned to their child all the time. Being ‘out of sync’ is therefore relatively common. Parents were also able to notice when they were ‘out of sync’, (missed or misunderstood the cues from their child), and were able to correct and repair the missed cue, about 20-30% of times. This process of being in sync, noticing a missed cue and repairing (getting back into sync), is a healthy aspect of the parent-child relationship. Tronick suggested that you are ‘in sync’ perfectly for a short period of time; the rest of the time, you’re out of sync, or you’re getting back into sync – you don’t need to get it perfect all of the time. Tronick and his colleagues emphasised that successful repair turns upsetting emotions into more manageable emotions.
Being in ‘sync’ with a child means that we try and respond to his or her needs, particularly their emotional needs. This could involve taking the time to connect emotionally (noticing the emotional cues from your child, their need for comfort, and support, and trying to respond to those cues appropriately); taking the time to listen and allowing your child to feel understood (taking the time to be in the world of your child, and to understand what they are going through); and identifying what their needs are. It may also involve slowing down your thoughts, and staying calm – that being in the moment with your child – will result in your child feeling understood, cared for, and valued. How we respond to the cues you notice, will depend on the age and developmental stage of your child.
Good enough parenting requires a plan in which you are: concerned; interested; and available. Some days the plan will work out better than others. The aim is to work hard to get it right some of the time; notice that you have diverted from the plan, and have worked to repair it by getting back onto the plan at other times; but at other times parents won’t follow the plan, and at these times we just need to know that you can be gentle on yourself, because it will work out, because it doesn’t need to be perfect.
Andrew Sozomenou is a Co-Director & Senior Psychologist at the READ Clinic. He has worked with children, families and adults for over 15 years. He specialises in working with: parenting and attachment issues; child behavioural issues; childhood trauma, anxiety and depression; school related issues, and issues of bereavement.