Way back when I was an undergrad, I took my first developmental psych course at the University of Ottawa. The course name makes it sound unbearably dry and boring, and judging by the amount of coffee consumed in class it probably was. But I had a huge advantage over my much younger classmates: at the point when I was restarting my degree work, Adrian was just over two years old (I did mention that this was some time ago, right?), which meant that I had a built-in child development laboratory right in my house. To me, this was the coolest thing ever.
So as I was learning about Erikson‘s developmental stages, I could go home and say, “Hey, Adrian—whaddaya think? Is your struggle over whether to eat peas or broccoli just part of your ongoing efforts to develop autonomy?” He never really gave me a satisfactory answer, mostly because his mouth was full of peas, but I knew. It was. Jean Piaget gave me a better handle on cognitive milestones, and watching Adrian explore his world and figure stuff out gave me a front row seat.
Of course, we had to cover B.F. Skinner and his famous “Skinner boxes,” arguably one of the best-known undergrad psych bugaboos, but I loved it all—because right under my nose, I could see operant conditioning at work. (Me: “You put your own socks on! Yay! Such a big boy!” Adrian: “Yes! I a big boy!” After which he took his socks right back off…and put them on again, looking hopefully in my direction.)
All of this came back to me while Rachel and I were driving back from Toronto on Sunday. She has a habit of asking Big Questions (“What makes a good parent? How will I know if I am one? And how can I make sure I don’t screw up my kids when I eventually have them?”) that force me to dig way back in the old memory banks for satisfactory answers. The best I could do this time was to tell her that good parenting means paying attention to your child’s cues; and ultimately, it means doing your best to understand things from the child’s point of view, so you can reach them at their own level.
The most important advice I could give her, though, came from a British psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott . He coined a phrase that’s still used today, “the good-enough mother.” Winnicott, bless him, believed that to be a truly excellent parent (okay, he said “mother,” but I think we can assume that if he’d been writing today he would have included fathers) one need not be perfect. In fact, he said, it’s actually good for kids to have parents who are imperfect.
Yes, it means our little treasures will grow up with some foibles and quirks, but that’s okay. It’s called “being human.” Obviously, this doesn’t mean we don’t have to love them or provide them with what they need to grow and thrive, but it does mean that we have some leeway, some scope to be a little off-kilter. You can see why I would find this comforting.
So I was wondering: if you were to advise your kids on how to be an excellent parent, what would you tell them? I’ll leave you to ponder that while you grapple with jet-lag this morning!
Lots of love,