The good enough parent
...is all children really need, says Dorothy Einon
How can we reach the standards set by our mothers and grandmothers, who stayed home and looked after the children, while we leave for work five days a week? We know what we have to do. We must raise healthy, happy and successful children who hold dear the values we hold dear. But few of us know how to set about achieving this while succeeding with our careers and building some sort of life outside work and family.
The skills we apply to the rest of our lives do not help us approach parenthood in the right frame of mind. Business ideals of planned and organised time lead to concepts like 'quality time', which, when applied to small children, bring to mind a neurotic intensity which is both futile and wholly inappropriate. It sounds (and is) an excuse to pass the buck. (It's okay to get childcare on the cheap because good genes and quality time will suffice.) Anybody who has experienced life with pre-schoolers knows that an over-planned day is doomed to failure, but without any plan at all nothing can be done.
There are more than a few urban myths about parenting. Good mothers have natural births, so mothers worry that parenthood is starting badly if they have a caesarean. Good mothers breastfeed so mothers express milk rather than give baby an occasional bottle of formula (and then find that it is impossible to wean the baby on to the bottle when they go back to work). I was told that giving a bottle of formula would stop my milk production and disrupt the baby's immune system: nonsense. If everything is sterile and the formula is made as directed, bottle-fed babies grow normally and have perfectly good immune systems.
Breastfeeding naturally pushes early childcare on to the mother, leaving the father hovering on the edges. Major mothering and minor fathering can set the pattern for later parenting. If you can see this happening but find it hard to avoid, it is worth remembering that the breast is simply a means of delivering food. Nothing more, nothing less.
Stressed parents need to cut corners and practical care is where they can be cut (as long as safety is not compromised). If frequent feeding makes you too tired to enjoy your child, something has to give - and it should not be love. You don't need to change nappies at night. Your sleep is more important. You can rock and sing her to sleep, but it is better to sing when she is awake and let her teach herself how to fall asleep by herself. (She is going to have to learn this sometime.)
There is not a child on Earth who needs a perfect mother or a constant diet of quality child-centred time. Childhood is a preparation for life, and as we all know, life is not like that. If a child grows up expecting to be the centre of attention and to have a cheerleader on hand to motivate his every action he will be sadly disappointed. How can a child cope with reality (which is, after all, a world full of self-absorbed people) if he grows up thinking he can always demand everybody's undivided attention? Where is his drive and his independence if he has always relied on parents to motivate him?
Children need to learn that within the family they are sometimes first in line, and sometimes last, but that they are always loved and cherished. Love does not only happen when they are the centre of attention. A child should know that his parents still love him when they are at work or upstairs making the beds. No child should grow up believing that they only matter when they are pleasing somebody else.
According to American research, an over-rich diet of 'quality time' can lead to baby burn-out, a term used to describe the child's fear of failure. If pushed hard enough a pre-school child may be so afraid of failing that they would rather not try. Children need independence, self-esteem and confidence. They need to be able to 'get on with it'. Unless we are very careful, too many joint activities and an over-dependence on parental motivation produces children who are unable to work or play by themselves.
Mothers have always cut corners. Good enough parenting is about finding the right corners to cut. So a few dos and don'ts.
Don't confuse learning with academic competence. Most of the things a small child learns he learns by playing. Don't hot house. Children do not need to be able to read before they start school. Before they start school children need to be able to communicate, sit still, pay attention, and get on with things without constant prompting. These are skills which make family life at the beginning and end of a busy day run more smoothly.
Small children have very short attention spans and are easily distracted. A room full of toys provides constant distraction. Sustained attention is easier with the radio off and the door of the toy cupboard firmly closed, so that the child has a restricted choice of things to do.
Children learn by doing. How can he concentrate on putting on his socks if his bedroom lures him at every turn with more interesting things? Laying the table, making his bed or building a sandcastle encourages children to complete what they start, a skill as vital to schoolwork as holding a pencil.
Children demand attention. We can give it for good behaviour or bad. The former is harder to do, especially if we are run ragged by work, but it makes life easier. Reward him for being good and he will be good. Wait until you need to shout 'stop that now!' and next time he needs to attract your attention he knows what to do.
We have made attention-seeking more prevalent by keeping children underfoot. Fifty years ago even small children were playing out, cared for by their older siblings and cousins. Today few children under eight can be seen in the local parks. In consequence children are always underfoot.
Because we can hear them, children's boredom and bickering are a constant reminder of parental failure. There is no reason why we should confine them to the house and garden. There are no more 'nasty men' out there than there ever were. Very few children are abused by strangers - the numbers have hardly increased in 50 years. What has changed is our perception of the danger. Statistics suggest that the main danger from traffic occurs in the first year that we allow children on the street - whatever their age.
It hardly needs saying that children need at least one person who thinks they are very special. The wider the circle of those who love him the better he feels, and substitute care can be a positive asset here. Most of all, find time. Time is the one thing which families have in short supply. It is worth weighing the value of dancing lessons against an hour's communal vegging out.
Dorothy Einon is a senior lecturer in psychology at University College London, and author of Learning Early (Marshalls)
Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999