Good enough parenting

SECTION ONE

INTRODUCING. GOOD ENOUGH. PARENTING

Chapter One

PARENTING MATTERS

While putting together a workshop for Singapore’s Health Promotion Board on the topic of building self-esteem in children, I solicited help from our then 11-year old son, who had (and still has) a good sense of self-worth.

Karen:

(sitting next to David on the sofa) Hey, sweetie, I need some help for a presentation I am working on. May I ask you a question?

David:

Sure, Mom.

Karen:

Ok, just out of curiosity, what would you do if a kid in your school told you that you were stupid?

David:

(confidently) I’d tell him that he was stupid!

Karen:

Ok . . . and just out of curiosity, what would you do if one of your teachers told you that you were stupid?

David:

(thoughtfully and with a smile) Well, I probably wouldn’t tell them they were stupid, but I would think it!

Karen:

One more question . . . what would you do if I told you that you were stupid?

David:

(slowly, with a bit of sadness) Well, I would probably get angry—but I might believe you.

Parenting matters. Don’t let anyone tell you that parenting is not important. It is the most significant job that you will ever do, with far-reaching consequences.

We distilled a painstakingly long and detailed study summarizing over 1000 parenting articles into two sentences:

• Teens whose parents are supportive and caring, but who also consistently monitor and enforce family rules, are more likely to be motivated and successful at school, as well as psychologically and physically healthy.

• In contrast, adolescents whose parents are overly strict and give them little independence, as well as those whose parents are warm but permissive, are more likely to be impulsive and engage in risky behavior.1 (RR1.1)

These findings are not really surprising; they sound like common sense. Parents should be close to their teens, practice what they preach, and avoid being both too controlling and too permissive. However, the following bit of research is a bit more startling: A study of almost 600 families in New York over 18 years found that unhealthy parenting was more of a predictor of children’s mental illness than the mental health of the parents themselves! The more frequent occurrence of unhealthy parenting, the more likely the occurrence of mental illness in children (RR1.2).2 Parenting matters.

We recognize that most parents are trying their best to love their children, and that their mistakes are usually unintentional and subtle. And while there is no such thing as a perfect mom or dad, parents can learn to be “good enough”. (We didn’t make up that phrase—English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about the “good enough mother” over a half-century ago.3) Good Enough Parenting takes being intentional, and it takes training.

Allow us to illustrate this principle with a story from Karen’s extended family in Texas. The McDonalds play a card game called Liverpool Rummy. They see every holiday as an excuse for a tournament; three tables or more of six players is not an uncommon sight at any gathering. While new family members struggle to learn the intricacies of the game with its idiosyncratic rules, after a few Thanksgivings and Christmases they begin to pick up the skills needed and pretty soon they start winning, or at least not coming in last. They learn not to sit behind the uncle who buys everything, to beware the aunt who always plays low, and to not be surprised when a certain cousin breaks into song if he loses! The outcome of the game is determined partly by the cards one is dealt, but also very much by how one plays the game. Some players moan about their bad luck, and eventually make excuses about why Liverpool is not their thing. Others hone their skills, year after year, and get better and better.

Parenting is very similar. When prospective parents combine their gene pools, part of the excitement of having a child is to discover what characteristics have been “dealt,” if you will. Children’s temperaments are inborn; parents do not get to choose which temperament they prefer—this is the “nature” side of things. But there is also the “nurture” side, and that is where our part comes in. We can be trained. We can learn strategies. We can study our children and know which one “plays low”, and which one is likely to “break into song”. We may not win every hand, but we can improve with time, and get better and better. That is Good Enough Parenting.

Why is Good Enough Parenting effective? Good Enough Parenting helps parents meet what we call “the core emotional needs” and will:

• Equip parents to raise emotionally healthy and autonomous children who will make a positive contribution to their world

• Prevent parents (as much as possible) from passing down dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors

• Give step-by-step advice, in the case of teenagers or adult children, on how to repair and reconnect after a conflict.

In Good Enough Parenting, we have explained the importance of “core emotional needs”, defined and described them, and have discussed the long-term problems that come from not meeting them. We have used cartoons to illustrate how lifetraps get passed, and have included a “Basic Safety Zone” in each section, warning parents about steering clear of specific dangers associated with each core emotional need. We have given parents practical instruction about how to meet the different needs, and suggested exercises and activities. We have sprinkled the book with stories from our family (with our children’s permission) and called those bits “Louis Lowdown”. We have also included real life stories of parents and/or children who we have counseled personally or whose counseling we have supervised. We changed names and some details to protect confidentiality; in the case of stories made up for the sake of illustration, we have labeled them “vignettes”. On top of all this, we have filled the book with bite-sized nuggets of research; for those of you desiring to dine on more substantial data, look for the symbol “RR”(Research Reveals). Whenever you see an RR followed by a chapter and series number, you will be able to match it with more detailed research in our website, www.gep.sg. Look there also for information on our “Good Enough Parenting” Workshops, which combine movies, instruction and interaction to help moms and dads in their parenting journey.

We wish we could give you a formula, but even though we use scientific research and methods, children are not science projects—there is no equation that works with every child. Dear friends of ours who are also great parents once told us they put so much time into “studying” each of their four very different offspring that they had the equivalent of a Ph.D. in each child! That attitude is necessary if we want to be Good Enough Parents, because parenting is as much an art as it is a science, with each child his own priceless masterpiece.

Warning: Good Enough Parenting is not for the faint-hearted. This is not a “feel-good” book. Practicing the principles of Good Enough Parenting take courage, passion, and perseverance and blood, sweat, and tears. But the joy and satisfaction that come when you are emotionally connected with your child, when you share many of the same values, when he is functioning at a healthy level in his world, when she loves being with you and is successful when apart, when you see them thriving in relationships, make Good Enough Parenting worth every minute.