One of the many reasons parenting is the hardest job on the planet is the unknowns.  There are so many questions without any one right answer—“how much is too little versus too much discipline?”will my child end up happy?”  “why isn’t my toddler taking a nap today?”—the list is endless.  One of the most basic and universal questions that keep countless parents awake at night is simply, “am I being a good parent?” or “am I doing this right?”.  For parents who were themselves victims of childhood neglect or abuse, this question can be even more difficult to answer.  These parents really struggle with creating their own template to raise their children well, as they are lacking a template of love and support that should have been provided by their own parents.

So what does it mean to be a “good” parent?  Child psychiatrist, researcher, writer and psychoanalyst Ronald Winnicott explored this very question through 40 years of his writing and work.  And what he concluded through his many decades of work was this: It’s simply a matter of being a “good enough” parent.  In other words, there is a minimal amount of connection, empathy and ongoing attention to the child that is necessary to feed the child’s emotional development so she can grow up to be an emotionally healthy and connected adult.  Parenting that meets less than this minimal amount leaves a child who emotionally struggles throughout life.  She may appear fine to the outside world, but inside she is missing something important that the world cannot see.

Of course, “good enough” parenting takes many different forms, as every parent and every child are unique.  Across the board, good enough parents recognize the child’s emotional and physical needs and do a “good enough” job meeting it.  Most parents are good enough.  Human beings are biologically made to want to raise our children to thrive.

All good parents are guilty of emotionally failing their children at times, because nobody’s perfect.  We all get bored, overwhelmed, tired, frustrated, distracted or otherwise, which can lead to compromises here and there.  These compromises do not qualify the parent as an emotionally neglectful parent. All parents can recall a parenting moment that makes her cringe at the memory, because she knew she failed her child.  The harm, however, comes from the multitude of important moments in which the neglectful parent was blind to her child’s emotional needs.  Emotionally neglectful parents either emotionally fail their child in a moment of crisis, causing an irreparable wound, or they are chronically checked out to some aspect of the child’s need throughout her development.

Essentially, the signs of an emotionally healthy “good enough” parent are the following:

1) The parent feels an emotional connection with the child

2) The parent is attentive to the child and sees her as a unique and separate individual, not an extension of the parent or a possession or burden.

3) Using the emotional connection and attentiveness, the parent responds competently to the child’s emotional need

A good enough parent does NOT need to be perfect, as this is impossible.  A good enough parent will misstep from time to time, and won’t be able to direct constant, 24/7 attention towards the child, as no parent can do this (we all need mental and physical breaks).  A good enough parent may lose her cool or temper from time to time. This is normal.  What matters is the overall quality of the parent/child relationship, and how much faith the child has that the parent will, for the most part, respond accurately to what she needs.

A good enough parent does not have to attend every single sports event or practice in which the child participates.  A good enough parent does not need to be Martha Stewart (in fact, there are plenty of good enough parents out there who don’t have the first clue how to cook, decorate, sew or be remotely domestic).  A good enough parent is not a “Pinterest” parent (not that there’s anything wrong with a parent who is a Pinterest enthusiast).  A good enough parent does not have have all of the answers.  A good enough parent will be wrong sometimes, and will make mistakes.  A good enough parent has plenty of moments of confusion, unsure of what to do or say next with regards to her child.  A good enough parent does not have a perfect child; all good enough parents have children who can misbehave/act out because this is what all children do from time to time.

Most importantly, a good enough parents does not themselves need to have had a loving and stable childhood.  A healthy childhood of course really helps, but is not a requirement of a “good enough” parent.  Some parents can be mindful of their children’s emotional needs and not have to think about it; it just comes intuitively.  Other parents, however, have to learn how to be connected and attentive to their children, and it may feel as though they’re constantly working to learn and improve these emotional skills.  This is OK.  Good enough parenting does not have to come natural to everyone, and there are plenty of people who can learn these emotional skills.