Victor Bloom MD
Recent visits by grown children and their children have stirred my interest in the details of parenting. Years ago, a famous British psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott, came up with the concept of the 'good-enough parent'. By that concept he conceded that parenting is difficult and complex and that no one can be a perfect parent. Given our fallible nature, we will inevitably do some 'wrong' things in raising our children. These will not necessarily be traumatic, by which we mean doing significant damage to the emerging personality of the child. We all have a tendency to feel alone and unloved at times, unappreciated, small, helpless. These feelings are the residual of childhood happenings and there is no doubt but that a child will feel small and helpless and sometimes isolated and unprotected, given the vicissitudes of real life. It is part of the human condition to have unrealistic fears and needs for solace.
The concept of the 'good-enough' parent is Winnicott's way to explain 'normal' everyday life. He is one psychoanalyst who is more interested in what's normal, than what is abnormal. He was kind of a British Benjamin Spock, very down to earth and sensitive at the same time. He assumes that most people are 'normal', that is, without significant emotional disturbance. We all have our quirks, but these are usually considered within the range of normal. If a person grows up with relatively little psychopathology, is functional and adaptive, can love and work, well then he or she had a 'good-enough' mother. The child needs adequate mothering, but fathers can do this too. It is a lucky child who has a mother that is comfortable fathering, and a father who can be mothering.
Now comes Bruno Bettelheim, the Holocaust-survivor who became a great and famous child psychiatrist. His books relate his gift of being sensitive to the deep and complex emotional lives of children, even being to relate to the autistic and otherwise severely disturbed children. With his knowledge of their development and unconscious, he wrote a book using Winnicott's phrase, "A Good Enough Parent--- (A Book on Child-Rearing)." This came ten years after his landmark work, "The Uses of Enchantment--- The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales." Despite conflicts which arose after his death about his actual practices, his writings are peerless insights into the mind of the child.
A year or two after his book on the good-enough parent, I was privileged to hear him lecture. He was a dynamic and eloquent man, holding his audience in thrall. At the end there was time for questions, and one lady asked him to expound on the concept of the 'good-enough mother'. Amazingly, shockingly, he shouted angrily, "good enough is NOT good enough!" This seemed to be a contradiction, but I quickly realized that his book on child-rearing was truly about BOLD-CAPS<superlative>BOLD-CAPS child-rearing, not just 'good-enough' child-rearing. He wanted BOLD-ITALICS<optimal>BOLD-ITALICS care of children, not just ITALICS>ordinary>ITALICS care, which leads to ordinary neuroses, which cause symptoms and saps energy and potential. I quickly realized his book on child-rearing was the most sensitive, creative and insightful book I had ever read on child-rearing. If any parent could follow every principle and derive every insight from the book, it would be superhuman. So one must acknowledge reality and realize that the principles are more of a goal to be striven for, not necessarily a recipe for a perfect child. The fact is, no one is perfect, neither parent nor child. The question is, what accommodations are to be made to a child that will help him or her to optimal development. I will try to illustrate these in future articles.
Our present understanding of the result of 'optimal development' is not only a person who has no major emotional disturbance, who can love and be loved, and who can work effectively, but a person who is autonomous, adaptive, moral and ethical, and realizes his or her intellectual and creative potential fully. Such a person, whose instincts are not excessively dammed up, is a person with abilities to console him or herself in adversity and to be empathic with others. Such a person is spontaneous, open and honest (authentic), feeling secure within and having a good opinion of one's self. The latter is what we call 'self-esteem'. Self-esteem comes from the internal representation (memory) of a good (loving) parent. If the parent is endlessly patient and tolerant, accepting and understanding, using creativity to solve the numerous daily misunderstandings and disagreements, the child will grow to be a superlative person and parent. That is just the way it works.
Dr. Bloom is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University School of Medicine. He is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He is a member of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and corresponding editor of their quarterly journal, Academy Forum. He welcomes comments and questions at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org