How to Be a Good Parent
Christine Sweeney, LICSW Program Manager, Parent Connection, BIDMC
JULY 19, 2019
If only there were some magic recipe that if followed exactly would ensure that our children grow up to be happy and self-sufficient, successful in a chosen career that provides good health insurance and a 401k, and please, please, please not to become one more victim of the opiate crisis.
When we become parents we are suddenly face to face with the enormity of this responsibility and the vulnerability of our newborn. I imagine that this overwhelming sense is something felt by parents across cultures. This wish to be the best/perfect parent because if we are... then our child will be successful. It all depends on us getting it right.
As overwhelming as this sense of responsibility often feels, it is preferable to the alternative, the realization that it all doesn’t rest with us, that there are influences over which we have no control that may set our children on a path we cannot bear to think about. And yet that is the scary reality of raising children. We cannot control everything, and sometimes trying to actually causes more harm. (I.e. Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and Operation Varsity Blues.)
Typically parents are the first to blame when something doesn’t go right, or when a child behaves badly, and while there may be some truth to that assumption, so often it falls very far from the reality. Much more often, when you take a look at families, your own or others you know, you can find examples of wonderful parents and great kids, but one sibling who is not doing so well... you get the picture.
We tend to avoid facing the scary reality that there are no guarantees when we take this leap into parenting. We give it our best, do all that we can, and then hope (and maybe pray) that all goes well. But the reality is that we are not going to be perfect (whatever that is) and we don’t have to be.
T. Berry Brazelton, MD and Stanley Greenspan, MD in their book, “The Irreducible Needs of Children” outline what every child needs to grow, learn and flourish. In each chapter they expand on the needs for:
- Ongoing nurturing relationships
- The need for physical safety, protection and regulation
- The need for experiences tailored to individual differences
- For developmentally appropriate experiences
- For limit setting, structure and clear expectations
- The need for stable, supportive communities and cultural continuity
In 1953, British pediatrician and psychoanalysist, Donald Winnicott coined the phrase, the “good enough mother.” His view was that it’s OK to sometimes “fail” our babies. That overtime when children experience that their every need is not immediately tended to, they learn how to tolerate frustration and disappointment, and that the world does not revolve solely around them... Necessary lessons learned incrementally over time.
So often new moms spend a great deal of energy worrying and harshly judging themselves over things like, not exclusively breastfeeding for the first year of life, if their baby is slower to reach developmental milestones, if their child is spending many hours a day in day care... or the countless ways parents, and women in particular judge themselves as “not good enough.” Hopefully with time comes perspective and the realization that the preschool or kindergarten teacher can’t pick out which children were exclusively breastfed or which were fed some or all formula. Hopefully we learn to not compare or measure ourselves against what other parents are doing, and begin to feel more confident in our own parenting choices. As our children grow and we grow as parents, we learn to tolerate the uncertainties that come with each developmental stage knowing that not knowing is just part of this parenting journey.
Buckle up. It’s a ride. There are ups, and downs, you may scream or need to close your eyes, but don’t forget to have fun!