Why you shouldn't try to be the 'perfect parent' - you are already good enough
Parents put themselves under extreme pressure to be 'perfect'. Here, psychologist and NUIG lecturer Dr Malie Coyne shares her three pillars of 'good enough' parenting
If your children had one wish for you this coming year, it would be your acceptance that being a 'good enough' parent to them is just that... enough. But what does 'good enough' parenting mean in reality and how is it better than striving to be the best?
In his book A Good Enough Parent (1987), Bruno Bettelheim stated that 'Perfection is not within the grasp of ordinary human beings'. And yet somehow in the age we live in, where we seem to hold high expectations for everything we do, including our parenting, many parents feel that there must be a 'right' way to parent and (surprise, surprise), most of us are falling short.
In an effort to relieve parents of the pressure many feel to meet their children's every need and quash a few parenting myths, here are my three pillars of 'good enough' parenting:
Pillar one - Learn to trust your gut instinct
As parents we all want the best for our children. We read up on all the latest parenting advice, we listen to the opinions of family, friends, professionals, the stranger at the supermarket, often relying on the outside world to set our compass on the 'dos' and 'don'ts' of being a good parent.
Whilst we could all use a few tweaks (myself included!), let me say one thing loud and clear: You already have what you need to be a 'good enough' parent. This can be hard to believe when we're drowning in a sea of advice. And whilst there's good information out there, all the noise can drown out our parenting 'gut instinct'. This leaves many of us doubting ourselves and tuning into our inner self-critic. Gut instinct, what's that?
When I say that you already have what you need to be a good parent, I am talking about the positive intentions you have for your child, your natural instincts in being able to attune to them, and the incredible power of your child-parent relationship in modelling for them what it means to be human, compassionate and resilient in a less than perfect world.
Realising the treasure trove of qualities you already have as a parent can help you to develop a lens through which you can filter all the advice you're exposed to. It's about learning to listen to your own inner wisdom and nurturing your confidence to make choices about which advice to follow if any, and how it fits it with your own unique situation.
Becoming more attuned to your gut instinct and learning to trust yourself isn't easy and requires a big dose of self-kindness, support from others, and lots of practice. Here's how:
1 The next time you're faced with a parenting decision, stop and breathe in and out of your belly for a while, giving your brain some time to rest and think clearly.
2 Listen to what your gut instinct is telling you. If fear is driving it, acknowledge the critical inner voice which is there to protect you, and try to locate a kinder voice within.
3 If this is too hard, ask yourself - "What would I say to a good friend in this situation?"
4 Knowing that nature has created children to be resilient, take it one step at a time and wow to do the next 'good enough' thing.
Pillar two - Let go of the fallacy of perfection
Parenting is not black or white, it's millions of shades of grey. Perfection does not exist for you or your child. If you recognise this to be an issue for you, it may be helpful to realise that living up to this impossible standard may end up doing you and your child a disservice.
Trying to be perfect sends the wrong message to children, as they get the impression that performance is more important than inner qualities, valuable experiences and effort.
It also hinders parents modelling what it means to be human in making mistakes and growing from them, which is where resilience grows from.
Perfection sets children up for unrealistic expectations of themselves as they try to negotiate disappointments in life. And for what?
Whether you're a child or parent, feeling like we don't quite measure up begins a spiralling of negative thoughts which leads to low self-confidence and emotional difficulties.
The belief that 'perfect families' exists promotes feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and blame. Relationship ruptures arise naturally in every family.
It's how we repair these with our children that truly matter, which provides a valuable opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your child and model for them how healthy relationships work.
When something goes wrong with our kids, rather than blame ourselves or them, try to see the need behind their behaviour, which is them needing you to organise their feelings. Taking your child's distress seriously and acknowledging their experience as valid for them gives them an experience of being safe as they learn about feelings and builds empathy.
The difference between blaming yourself and taking responsibility for something you wished you'd managed better is that blame stops you from creating new options, whereas taking responsibility helps you to take a 'pause' the next time you're faced with a similar challenge.
Instead of perfection, striving towards 'good enough' self-acceptance is a more realistic ideal for parents as it enables a greater sense of emotional balance and calm.
If this feels too difficult for you as a parent, it may be helpful to seek professional support.
Pillar three - Get to know yourself as a parent and prioritise self-care
All parenting begins with you. How you see yourself as a parent has a huge bearing on how your child will see you and how they view themselves, as you are a mirror to their feelings about themselves.
If we want children to love and accept who they are, we need to work on loving and accepting who we are. This isn't easy for many of us, myself included.
Each of us comes into our parenting roles with emotional baggage we may not have processed.
Sometimes it's only when we become parents that our old family scripts re-emerge and we're suddenly faced with seeing them repeated in our interactions with our children.
Having kids pushes us to take a long hard look at ourselves, but also affords us an incredible opportunity to grow as parents and as human beings. Working on yourself is one of the best investments you can make for you and for them.
To be a calm, loving and empathic parent you need to take good care of yourself. Parental self-care is about recognising our feelings and taking the time we need to restore physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social balance. This enables us to take a step back from our children's emotions to decide on how we might compassionately respond to them.
If we're feeling overwhelmed, we're less able to contain our children's big emotions.
On the other hand, if we take a proactive approach to nurturing our self-care, we're far more likely to have the physical and emotional reserves to take on the daily challenges of parenting.
So in welcoming the new year, rather than make ambitious promises about how we'll surpass ourselves as parents this year, how about accepting that 'good enough' is just that... enough.