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Monday, April 11, 2011

Have we forgotten that good enough may just be good enough

In a recent article on the New York Times Motherlode website, Christien Gottleib, a lawyer who represents parents in child protection matters, mused "parenting is something we are inclined to judge harshly at the same time that it is impossible to do in anything but an extremely flawed way. You can’t get it right. We all know this." (

D.W. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst noted in the 1960s that a parent can be good enough and we should not expect perfection. In essence, it may not even be appropriate to try and hold out some high standard as something that parents should strive for - its just not realistic. It may, in fact, not be helpful particularly in the world of child protection. In that world, getting a parent to the point where they are good enough is a valid goal particularly given the history that many parents in these circumstances enter the world of parenting with.

Trauma, grief, loss, neglect, maltreatment form part of the story for many of these parents. If we exclude those where poverty is the main story, then these other factors are features of cases that are prominent in the vast majority of families. Many child protection parents have disorganized attachments making it very hard for them to be attuned to their children. They simply don't know what it means.

Research also tells us that the first 5 years are the most crucial for parenting - so what would happen if parenting interventions were thought of as trying to get good enough. This might include supporting parents in trying to understand what child behaviour might mean; find ways to better read their children; try to comfort; be emotionally present and most of all accept some level of flaws as long as they can be essentially safe with the children? This might increase the possibility of family preservation and reduce demand on scarce foster placements. BUT - we will have to lower our expectations to something that most parenting text books do not talk about - good enough.

In the good enough family, parents will provide basics (food, clothing, shelter); avoid hitting and abusing; be emotionally and physically available and learn how to set reasonable limits. What we need is a wide spread discussion on accepting good enough.

There will be children for whom good enough is not going to be acceptable. These are children who have rather special needs such as disabilities of various kinds. But the majority of children in child protection might well be able to get the basics of what they need from a good enough parent.

Help parents to be positive, present and caring and that may be most of what children need.

This is a debate that we need in child protection particularly amongst those of us who assess parenting capacity. Budd, Clark & Connell, in their newly published book Evaluation of Parenting Capacity in Child protection, "...minimal parenting is the floor of acceptable parenting that is sufficient to protect the safety and well being of the child"(p.40).

It night well be argued that we have failed to really understand and articulate what this floor looks like meaning that the line separating good enough from not is fuzzy which in turn leads to erroneous conclusions about families.

Let us have this debate.

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