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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Good-Enough Parenting is Great!

This is not the kind of saying you are going to find on a coffee mug or a t-shirt. But this is the stuff that great kids are made of! The good-enough parent. Not the best. Not the greatest. Just good enough. Unfortunately this is not even something that most parents would set as a goal. Culturally, socially, it's just not what parents say. Think about it - can you imagine telling someone that your highest aspiration as a parent it to be adequate and that you hold as your highest goal to just do a satisfactory job as parent.

But the truth of the matter is that we would all be better off if adequate and satisfactory performance were highly prized in the parenting role. There is an abundance of research and clinical experience about dysfunctional families that details the devastation of perfectionism in family life. Demands for perfectionism are laden with shame and blame; sarcasm and rage; denigration and its fragile mirror image of idealization. In other words, striving for perfection in the parenting role inevitably means that when we blow it, which of course we will, then we are failures and that is an emotional experience that is tough to cope with for anyone.

Parenting is full of challenges for co-parents living together and working together to raise their children. When co-parents live in separate homes with separate lives, goals and aspirations and the children are going back and forth between the two homes, the challenges increase exponentially. For example, a common problem that occurs is that some co-parents compete with each other for the children's affections by being overly permissive. Some parents do it consciously with clear intent and some don't even realize they are doing it. For example, a child tells a parent that the other parent "never lets me have dessert," so the receiving parent says "oh, you poor thing, that's just not right;" and proceeds to over indulge the child with sweets. Whether consciously directed as retaliation/compensation or not, the impact on that child is negative.

Most parents know that consistency, routine, love and support are important in raising children. But having that knowledge and gaining the skills we need as parents to actually do the work of raising well-adjusted children are very different. For example, consistency is a skill of the good-enough parent, and rigidity is a trait of the perfectionist parent. How can you tell if you are being consistent or being rigid? Pay attention to your level of stress, emotional distress, and how you feel when your child doesn't do exactly what you want. A major freak out over something ordinary like spilled food or a slow response to a request is a sign that your expectations are out of synch.

Good-enough parenting can be roughly quantified 70-75%/25-30%, meaning that we want to be on-target with our children 70-75% of the time and allow ourselves to be off-target about 25-30% of the time. Perfectionism is a 100% proposition and is unattainable, so children end up neglected, abused, and shamed when parents fail or give up. The good-enough parent knows that they're going to blow it once in a while and they approach parenting with the notion of doing their best, compromising when the issue isn't critical and apologizing when they let the child down.

So what do we mean by "blow it?" Most of the time (70-75%) the parent wants to practice the following behaviors/traits with a child: attentive, warm, direct, honest, sharing humorous moments, offering immediate intervention/feedback, and being thoughtful. When a parent blows it (25-30%), they are probably practicing one or more of the following behaviors/traits: distracted, withdrawn, indirect, dishonest, using sarcasm, procrastinating, and being impulsive/thoughtless.

The good-enough parent recognizes very quickly when they blow it or are off-target. What do they do? First they admit it, then they give the child permission to have hurt or angry feelings, then they listen and then they do it over. For example, you come home from a busy day at work completely stressed out and your toddler runs to greet you and starts excitedly saying "look at this look at this look at this look at this" and you snap and angrily say "can you just wait a minute." The child's face changes from excited to hurt, from happy to sad in a split second. The good-enough parent catches him or herself and immediately gets down to eye level and says, "oh, sweetie, I am so sorry! Mommy/Daddy should not have talked to you that way. That must have hurt your feelings. Let's try that again. Please, show me what you have for me and tell me about it."

May seem like common sense but sometimes common sense is not that common. Parenting is a challenge because it's made up of hundreds of moments in every day that shape a child, for better or worse. Despite our best efforts, we are going to miss soccer games, arrive too late to read the night time book, use a harsh tone of voice in response to ordinary childhood needs, and just generally live the human experience.

Strive for balance and moderation and humanity in your approach to parenting. Strive to be good-enough. The alternative is a style of parenting that careens between extremes that confuse and stress the entire family system: hyper-vigilant or detached; idealizing or shaming; rigid or neglectful; intrusive or withdrawn; and the list goes on.

Embrace the ordinariness of those hundred little moments every day that shape your child. Relax, moderate, breathe. You will enjoy parenting so much more and you will enjoy your child.