Parenting is much debated, generally with the aim of helping parents raise happy, confident, spontaneous, competent, competitive and educated individuals, whilst taking into account what will be important to them in their future adult lives.
It is important to bear in mind that we educate our children today for results that we see in thirty years’ time! With such a long time-scale to our goals, each step in their upbringing and education requires foresight and a degree of stability in our attitudes, especially since we know so little about what the world will look like a generation from now.
Sigmund Freud once described parenting as a mission that is destined to be incomplete and that any attempts to achieve “perfection” - however unattainable it may be - would certainly be doomed to failure, even if we can’t stop ourselves from trying.
Moreover, those who do seek perfection tend to find themselves simply extending their definition of what “perfection” is the closer they get to it, setting their children up for certain failure. The complexity of variables is considerable. As such, we seek to protect our children above all - both in our expectations we place on them and in our acceptance of the outcomes.
This is why we incessantly (and quite rightly) check whether they have eaten well, slept well, had a bath, washed their hands and done their homework, and whether they have healthy relationships with their friends and are fulfilled in their extracurricular activities.
All the same, it is difficult to know if the result we are seeking is adequate, or if we are demanding too much or too little, precisely because the ultimate result is so distant.
With this in mind, how do we know if we are moving in the best direction? Here I use the word “best” quite deliberately. I could maybe use the word “right”, but those who have children, siblings and friends know that what works for one person does not necessarily work for others. Of course, in a complex world, made even more so by the dynamic interaction between individual and society, we want to reassure ourselves that we were able to offer our children all the possibilities within our means.
To answer the question above, we therefore need a better reference, and what better reference than our children themselves: how do they respond to our efforts? Are they able to understand and participate in them? Are they active agents in our objectives, with us merely mediating? Or are they passive recipients, accumulating tasks and obligations which, out of love for us and possible feelings of inadequacy, they try to avoid or postpone until they feel more capable, compensating for their “failure” by increasing the burden of perfection expected of them? This is a great risk to their self-esteem, and ergo, the realisation of their aspirations for the future.
Evidently therefore, if we use the way our children respond to our efforts as our parameters, we will be the “best” we can, in the sense that, amidst the whirlwind of emotions and responsibilities that come with parenting, we will be “just” “sufficiently good parents”. This idea was first introduced by Donald Winnicott, whose observations and analyses were taken by others to develop psychoanalytic theory in new directions, thus enriching the tools of psychoanalytic treatment.
The notion of the “sufficiently good parents” is particularly pertinent to the times we live in today, in which people’s expectations are higher than ever before, due in part to a social fabric of immense diversity, and changes in educational parameters.
Being “sufficiently good” requires us to not desire perfection, either for ourselves or for our children, rather to offer them the best we can.
Written by Christiana Baldini, Psychoanalyst