THE “GOOD-ENOUGH” PARENT

Psychoanalyst and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott recognized the powerful developmental roles parents and other caretakers play for their children. Obviously, children need their parents for the basics of physical survival. But children also use their parents for emotional development. Ideally, it is through their parents and other caregivers that children individuate into separate, healthy, true selves who are capable of self-knowledge and self-respect but who can also connect intimately and humanely with others. Where both of these needs, the physical and the emotional, come together is in the holding environment, or the space parents and guardians provide in which their children’s physical well-being and emotional development are nourished.

The Holding Environment

The notion of a holding environment is simple enough. It is a space within which children are safe to grow, explore, experiment, be creative, and make mistakes. It is the context within which emotional and cognitive development takes place and within which attachment styles, psychic structures, and psychological comfort zones form.

One can consider the holding environment from the physical perspective of layout, materials, and activities, but one must also take the emotional atmosphere into consideration. For example, emotional development requires abundant, loving interaction between parent and child. It also rests on opportunities for the child to be “alone…in the presence of mother” (Winnicott, 1965). To be alone in the presence of mother (or, more generally, of another) is to immerse oneself in one’s own imagination, the make-believe world, with the absolute certainty that help and attention, should the child need them, are nearby.

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DEFINITION

The holding environment is the physical and emotional context within which people are “held” so they can, one hopes, grow and develop safely and healthily.

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FOOD FOR THOUGHT

A holding environment can be as small and intimate as a mother’s arms or as broad as a school, a neighborhood, or a nation. And the bigger the holding environment is, the less control an individual parent has. A father might give a mean bear hug but be unable to protect his children from dangers on the playground, on the school bus, or on the street. The notion of “holding environment,” then, is not just a psychodynamic one. It is a social, economic, and political one as well.

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One of the most important elements of a holding environment is constraints. Take, for example, a typical two-and-a-half-year-old boy. Not surprisingly, this toddler needs a safe holding environment: Among many other things, he needs to be supervised when he plays; he needs to learn about dangers in his surroundings; he needs to be stopped from doing himself or others harm. Unfortunately, when faced with these constraints, our toddler often turns against his parents the very word they are using with him: “NO!” And as any parent of a typical toddler knows, the onset of “NO!” can make holding, whether in one’s arms or in the environment, just about impossible.

Good Enough and Not Good Enough

As with students, a child’s resistance to parental wisdom and guidance often leads to a power struggle. And as do teachers, parents can quickly lose perspective and control.

When parents lose perspective and a sense of control, they can try to pacify the child. They coddle and appease, trying to soften the blow of their “NO!” They make deals, bribe, distract, and simply give in, sabotaging their “NO” by turning it into an apologetic “yes.” Winnicott describes such parents as “too good”: They are so nice that they bend over backward to avoid their children’s wrath. They choose to put off until tomorrow lessons about reality and limitations that their children need to learn today. By being accommodating in the face of resistance, these parents lose perspective on their developmental role and allow their children to call the shots.

Other parents who lose perspective and control get angry themselves. They identify with the rage their child is feeling and give in to their own rage at being thwarted. Rather than model for the child how to manage anger effectively, they actually take over their child’s anger and turn it against him, often overwhelming and frightening him with their extreme reaction. Parents who co-opt their children by being fiercer and angrier are what Winnicott calls “not good enough.” They, like their overly accommodating counterparts, take their toddler’s resistance personally, perceiving disobedience as a personal threat rather than a developmentally necessary and appropriate gesture.

In this chapter we are concerned mainly with “good enough” parents and “great enough” teachers. For that reason, and to simplify the distinction, “too good,” overly accommodating parents (and teachers) are put into the same category as “not good enough,” co-opting parents (and teachers); that is, they are both “not good enough.”

The good-enough parent, according to Winnicott, is one who can “meet” the toddler’s bid for power, or “omnipotence,” firmly, consistently, and objectively. Good-enough parents understand and accept that children must challenge them for the sake of their growth and development. They know that a daring and disobedient toddler (or teenager) needs not coddling or terrorizing but holding and containing.

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DEFINITION

Good-enough parents expect to be challenged. They commit to both setting realistic and healthy limits for their children and surviving the children’s inevitable protests against these limits.

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When parents hold their children, they do two things:

  • They set reasonable parameters, both physical and emotional, within which their children must function for safety and health,

AND

  • They maintain those limits consistently, even in the face of inevitable protest.

In truth, it is a child’s job to push the boundaries; if she does not push and test, she will not gain the confidence she needs, first, that her parents are in charge (not she herself); second (and related), that she is physically and emotionally safe; and third, that reality, while sometimes disappointing, is manageable and survivable.

The great, almost unbearable risk parents and other caregivers run when they set and maintain limits is their children’s disappointment and rage. Too-accommodating, not-good-enough parents recoil from the possibility of hurting their child and, by extension, of earning their child’s hatred. These parents tend to interpret the crying, screaming tantrums that often result from a parent’s “NO” as evidence of overwhelming internal pain. Out of love and concern (and self-preservation), these parents will do anything to stop that pain, including ignoring their own needs and reasonable restrictions. In doing so, they teach their child over and over that the child is in control and that the world ultimately yields to him.

For the child this means a number of things: He is in danger (being a mere child, he cannot possibly take control); there is no reality other than his own (because the world is ever yielding); difficult emotions are, in fact, unmanageable; and, when he most needs boundaries, there are none. He will not be securely held. These lessons are deeply handicapping, especially when a child eventually confronts real-world limits and cannot, or will not, adapt to them.

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DEFINITION

Too-accommodating not-good-enough parents protect their children from the suffering caused by realistic limits, in the process teaching their children to be entitled and inflexible.

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Co-opting not-good-enough parents are themselves overwhelmed by their child’s strong negative emotions and must suppress them to regain a sense of balance and control. Not understanding the child’s reaction to “NO!” and, perhaps, suspecting that their insistence is misguided, they resolve their doubts and intense discomfort by crushing the protest. Even when their intent is to restore peace, co-opting not-good-enough parents teach their child to fear them.

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DEFINITION

Co-opting not-good-enough parents enforce limits by dominating their children, in the process teaching their children to fear them and to hide themselves behind a “false self.”

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As teachers who insist on compliance do, co-opting parents help their child develop a “false self,” one that is focused not on self-expression and autonomy but on self-effacing appeasement of more powerful others. One result can be an overly developed, anxious external orientation, the constant need for others’ approval. Another result can be atrophied self-understanding and awareness. Yet another result can be an ongoing pattern of relational abuse as the child-turned-adult models his own behaviors after those of his parents.

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DEFINITION

A false self is a fa├žade, or mask, a person creates that is meant to appease others while hiding and suppressing one’s personal desires and perspectives.

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Good-enough parents can also be not-good-enough parents at times. There is no “embracing hatred” gene that makes some lucky people serene in the face of a child’s anger and disappointment. Two traits that characterize good-enough parents are their willingness to repair when they have over- or under-reacted and their ability to tolerate their child’s learning process in the face of inevitable frustration.

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KEEP IN MIND

Two characteristics that good-enough parents tend to have are

  • willingness to repair relationships after the fact

AND

  • tolerance for their children’s frustration.

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Repairing

There are many ways parents can repair mistakes they have made with their children:

  • Revisiting a tantrum and explaining their reactions
  • Working through a conflict with the child after a cooling time-out
  • Taking full responsibility for their own actions
  • Apologizing for inappropriate or frightening responses

These approaches to relational repair can be immensely healing because children are reassured when parents (eventually) do not take their tantrums personally: when parents can detach and both empathize with their children and represent reality in terms that make sense, that match the children’s own experience and that honor that experience as separate and worthy, even if sometimes maddening.

By representing themselves fairly and accurately and accepting their children’s different realities, parents model the interpersonal boundaries that are so essential to healthy interaction. Repairing mistakes reinforces the distinction between parent and child at the same time that it strengthens the connection upon which a child’s emotional life depends.

Tolerating Frustration

The ability to remain calm as a child learns how to manage frustration is a crucial skill for good-enough parents. Whether they like it or not, all parents will eventually frustrate and anger their children. The trick, Winnicott advises, is in frustrating “optimally.”

As Winnicott sees it a child ideally begins life with a caregiver who is completely focused on her, experiencing what Winnicott calls “primary maternal preoccupation.” After a few months the parent begins to return her attention to her own life, juggling her needs with those of her baby and others. Over time, caregivers respond to the baby’s cry a little more slowly than at first, unintentionally giving the baby time to practice self-soothing and to adjust to the awful truth that the world is full of limits, disappointments, and frustrations. This lack of immediate availability provides the baby with “optimal frustration,” which she can use to learn the essential skill of self-regulation.

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DEFINITION

Self-regulation is the ability to exert self-control and to soothe oneself in moments of stress.

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Fortunately, the world is also (ideally) full of love, admiration, excitement, and reassuring calm, so frustration and other strong negative feelings can be counterbalanced. But introducing children to frustration, inviting them to feel the terrible emotions of hatred, anger, and disappointment, and showing them that these feelings are survivable — not so terrifying that parents cave in to them and not so threatening that parents squelch them with their own rage — is one of the most important jobs good-enough parents can do.

Put a little differently, in terms introduced in chapter two, good-enough parents recognize that, precisely because they are such influential people in their children’s lives, they will be used as objects for their children’s emotional (and physical and cognitive) development. Because they must frustrate and disappoint, parents will be tested, fought, disobeyed; they will be destroyed, vanquished, in their children’s imaginations; they will be hated. When parents take this object-role personally, they can become not good enough: They can assuage their own discomfort by either giving in to their children or overwhelming them. When parents embrace this object role, recognizing that it has little to do with them personally and everything to do with them as developmental partners, they can provide the type of holding environment all children require.

From Parents to Teachers

So what does this have to do with teachers? As crucial developmental partners, teachers are subject to the same reactions that parents are when they try to “hold” their children. Teachers are, therefore, akin to good-enough parents.

But valuable as Winnicott’s definition of a good-enough parent is, the term “good enough” is not good enough for teachers who want to be great. To avoid the appearance of pushing complacency and mediocrity that a superficial reading of “good enough” might imply, the term we will use from here on out for teachers is “great enough.” The great-enough teacher, like the good-enough parent, recognizes her crucial developmental role in the classroom and establishes and maintains a healthy holding environment for her students.

— pp. 152-159, The Feeling of Teaching: Using Emotions and Relationships to Transform the Classroom