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Could I be a better parent?

WONITA WOOLHOUSE has had years of experience in paediatrics and mental health. She discusses what positive parenting means.

Positive Parenting is a phrase I hear often, as a way to encourage what I imagine to be warm, thoughtful interactions with our children. The bit that does not quite align for me is when parenting doesn’t feel positive at all – not because the opposite of positive parenting is neglect or abuse – it is simply because there are good days and there are bad days. The truth is, there is room for both. We won’t and we don’t get it right every time. If I’m honest, ever since I was given my baby daughter to hold, I critiqued my parenting skills.

We want the input ‘message’ that will effectively shape the neurophysiology of our child to be “you belong, you are loved and you are safe”. This is fundamentally vital and occurs very early on. It is seen as a pre-requisite for other psychosocial developmental milestones such as empathy, compassion, tolerance, persistence, humility, and a sense of one’s autonomy.

How do I know if I am doing a good enough job as a parent? 
The phrase “good enough mother” was first coined in 1953 by Donald Winnicott, a British paediatrician, and psychoanalyst. Winnicott’s research involved observing thousands of babies and their mothers. From this, he learnt that babies and children actually profit when their mothers (and I hasten to include fathers/caregivers) fail them in ways that are physiologically tolerable (excluding abuse and neglect obviously). This, in turn, strengthens your child’s ability to tolerate the ‘not-so-comfortable’ emotions in life, such as feeling disappointment.

Decades on from Winnicott, the ability to be ‘good enough’ parents, I see largely being reflective of one’s own sense of self as ‘good enough’. Being good enough isn’t so much about doing interestingly enough. It is more so about authentically coming from your own sense of being “good enough” as a platform to parent from. We are often overwhelmed with how we “should” be parenting and flooded with the ‘ideals’ about getting it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, when we didn’t send children home with ‘party bags’ after our child’s eighth birthday party, for example. Social media, the world wide web, magazines, marketing, Dr Phil – it all contributes to our internal dialogue – our voice inside of ourselves. This dialogue comes with a felt sense of pressure, making it a lot harder to be authentic and to trust one’s own intuition, to attune and to relate with our children, as we parent.

Covert and not-so-subtle influences feed into our internal dialogue of voices that can be heard almost constantly evaluating whether we are actually good enough or if we need to try harder?! To do more, have more, give more, be more! It can and will suck the breath out of you.  The good news, of course, is that this incessant internal dialogue is actually within oneself – it can, therefore, be changed. Again, it is not so much about the doing, but becoming aware of one’s dialogue within oneself. Is it familiar? Is it relevant to here and now? Is it harsh or nurturing? Bringing this into one’s own awareness is the beginning of integration, of becoming whole and being in the here and now.

We all have our own experiences and upbringings that shape our internal world and our sense of who we are – or our ‘script’ as Eric Berne termed it in 1961. Our script is our blueprint for how to be in this world and how others view us. Intertwined often, in one’s sense of I’m ‘not-good-enough’, are the painful unattended aspects of oneself or perhaps a concealed feeling of shame. Despite being siblings in the family of feelings, there is a clear distinction between shame and guilt. Guilt is feeling bad about something you have done, while shame is feeling bad about who you are or a part of you. As a way of managing all of the above, we may lose sight of what is fundamental, to be ‘good-enough’ parents. Parenting is a journey with your child… take a moment to be in the moment with your child, to laugh with and laugh at oneself! To sometimes get it wrong, acknowledge the rupture in the relationship, repair with care and model that this is how we all learn. Be authentic with your children.

You won’t be a better parent by making yourself feel worse about how you’re already doing – you already are a better parent by wondering, “could I be a better parent”?

Wonita has worked in paediatrics and mental health spanning 20 years. She currently works in private practice now predominantly with ACC Sensitive Claims, as well as supervising facilitators of the Canterbury ‘Mates & Dates’ Programme. Wonita is also a proud mum to eight-year-old Madison.

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