Dr. Livingston’s Blog

📽️The Good Enough Principle in Child Care

The perfect is really the enemy of the good.

DR. MICHAEL LIVINGSTON

DR. MICHAEL LIVINGSTON

PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY AT COLLEGE OF SAINT BENEDICT AND SAINT JOHN’S UNIVERSITY

Advisor & Occasional blogger

Good Enough Parenting

Aphorism: a pithy observation, such as, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

We are a country that values

And often demands perfection, even in our children.  But what if, in some cases, the perfect is the enemy of the good, as the old English aphorism goes? What if just being good enough is actually better than being perfect?
In child psychology, the pediatrician and child psychotherapist Donald Winnicott introduced the concept of the good enough mother in 1953. The idea, in a nutshell is that no mother is perfect, and that is just great. All you need to be is “good enough” and your child will turn out fine. In fact, the striving for perfection as a mother can cause more harm than good, to both mother and child.

Winnicott’s concept has been shown to have wide application.

The principle applies to both moms and dads, spouses, childcare workers, and teachers. You do not have to be perfect, just good enough, and your children (or marriage, or students) will turn out just fine. The striving for perfection in ourselves or others will undermine positive outcomes. The perfect is really the enemy of the good. The general principle also has been used in business and engineering. A product or engineering solution does not have to be perfect, just good enough to get the job done.
To apply the good enough principle, what we need to know is what constitutes good enough and what doesn’t. And this, as we like to say in child psychology, is an empirical question. For instance, to have an emotionally secure attachment with your infant, the research shows that a parent must be cooperative, available, sensitive, and accepting MOST of the time, but not necessarily all the time. There is a large body of research that shows us what these parental behaviors look like.  The fact is, in the US about 2/3rds of mothers (we don’t know the percentage of fathers) are good enough parents to have a secure attachment relationship with their kids. The one-third of mothers who are not good enough to form a secure relationship have a lot of stress and pressure in their lives: an abusive or neglectful spouse, alcohol or drug addiction, post-partum depression, or extreme poverty. Sometimes they just simply don’t know what they are doing. When their lives improve or they learn a bit about how to be a parent, so does their parenting. 

So we are back to Evidence Based Childrearing (EBC)

which is described in the first blog, and best practices for parents and childcare professions. But EBC must be considered in light of the good enough principle. You do not have to use best practices all the time and to a perfect extent, to be good enough. Relax, do your best in light of the evidence, and don’t worry about perfection in you or your children. 

The striving for perfection is not equally distributed between males and females.

It tends to be gendered, meaning it is more likely to be associated with one gender than the other. Lots of psychological phenomena are gendered, and what is gendered can be different from one culture to the next. In the mainstream US culture, perfectionism tends to be gendered female, meaning more women suffer from and strive for perfectionism than males. These are of course generalizations about average differences, there are lots of females that do not suffer from perfectionism, just as there are lots of males that do. Perfectionism is associated with procrastination, anxiety, and lower achievement in some fields. A recent TED Talk by Reshma Saujani, 📽️“Teach girls bravery, not perfection” addresses perfectionism in girls and achievement in STEM fields. Her message applies to all children and all adults though: the perfect is the enemy of the good.  Or as Winnicott would say, the good enough.