There is no such thing as a ‘perfect parent’
Society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent. It follows too that children will inevitably have both very different experiences of parenting and very unequal consequences flowing from it. It means that some children will experience disadvantage and harm, whilst others flourish in atmospheres of loving security and emotional stability. These are the consequences of our fallible humanity and it is not the provenance of the State to spare children all the consequences of defective parenting. In any event, it simply could not be done. …It would be unwise to a degree to attempt an all embracing definition of significant harm. One never ceases to be surprised at the extent of complication and difficulty that human beings manage to introduce into family life.
Mr Justice Hedley in Re L (Care: Threshold Criteria) (Family Division 26 October 2006)
The state can only interfere in your parenting if your child is beyond your control, you have caused your child significant harm or there is a serious risk you will cause that harm in the future.
Being a less than ‘perfect parent’ does not mean that professionals can assume you will cause significant harm to your child. You just have to be ‘good enough’. Its a phrase you will often hear in care proceedings. But what does it mean?
Who are parents and why is parenting important?
You don’t have to be a child’s biological mother or father to be involved in ‘parenting’ that child. Anyone in the wider community who is involved in the child’s development could be said to be part of the parenting process – such as grandparents, teachers, friends and neighbours.
A child needs ‘good enough’ parenting to survive and grow into a healthy, functioning adult. His basic needs for food and shelter have to be met to ensure his physical survival, but meeting such basic needs is not the only obligation of parents. If a child’s emotional needs are neglected or ignored, that is likely to have a serious impact on the child for all his life. Developing a healthy ‘attachment’ between child and adult carer is an important part of parenting.
What do we mean by ‘good enough parenting’?
Donald Winnicott was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst and probably the first to use the phrase ‘good enough parent’. He recognised that it was unrealistic to demand perfection of parents, and was interested in finding out what made them ‘good enough’.
He believed that the key to healthy development was rooted in a child’s relationships and interactions with others.
With the care that it receives from its mother each infant is able to have a personal existence, and so begins to build up what might be called a continuity of being. On the basis of this continuity of being the inherited potential gradually develops into an individual infant. If maternal care is not good enough then the infant does not really come into existence, since there is no continuity of being; instead the personality becomes built on the basis of reactions to environmental impingement.” (Winnicott, 1960)
Dr Jennifer Kunst describes Winnicott’s ‘good enough mother’ as:
… sincerely preoccupied with being a mother. She pays attention to her baby. She provides a holding environment. She offers both physical and emotional care. She provides security. When she fails, she tries again. She weathers painful feelings. She makes sacrifices. Winnicott’s good enough mother is not so much a goddess; she is a gardener. She tends her baby with love, patience, effort, and care.
Components of good enough parenting
Talking, reading, playing, cuddling and communicating
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report ‘Assessments of Parents and Parenting Support Needed’ showed that professionals who worked with families, together with those in health and education, could agree on the main components of good enough parenting:
- meeting children’s health and developmental needs;
- putting children’s needs first;
- providing routine and consistent care;
- parental acknowledgement of any problems and engagement with support services.
‘Risky’ or ‘not good enough parenting’ was basically the reverse of this: not meeting the children’s needs, not putting them first etc. but it would be important to recognise if the risky behaviours identified represented a ‘one off’ or was a more regular part of the parents’ approach.
Part of being a good parent is preparing your child for environments outside your home. See the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report in October 2014, ‘State of the Nation 2014: Social Mobility and Child Poverty in Great Britain’, which looked at what Frank Field highlighted as the essential skills children need by the time they join the reception year at primary school:
- To sit still and listen;
- To be aware of other children;
- To understand the word no and the borders it sets for behaviour;
- To understand the word stop and that such a phrase might be used to prevent danger;
- To be potty trained and able to go to the toilet;
- To recognise their own name;
- To speak to an adult to ask for needs;
- To be able to take off their coat and put on shoes;
- To talk in sentences;
- To open and enjoy a book.
Things which can get in the way of good parenting.
The Department of Education reviewed the literature in this field as part of the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre programme (see further discussion below).
- An extensive body of evidence shows how factors such as domestic abuse, substance misuse, mental health problems and learning disability undermine parenting capability and increase the likelihood of significant harm, particularly when they occur in combination. Moreover, parenting does not take place in isolation. Parents are also influenced by stressors within the wider environment and family, such as poor housing, poverty and unemployment that make parenting more challenging and increase the likelihood that difficulties will arise.
Is there a universal definition of ‘good enough’ parenting?
While we can probably all agree about the importance of the basic needs of providing a child with food and clothes, problems may arise in care proceedings when professionals don’t share the same outlook as the parents as to what is important for the children and why.
The participants in the JRF report above were aware that they bought their own personal beliefs about parenting to the process and there could be problems if those doing the assessing came from a very different background to the parents being assessed.
For example, parents from some cultures may have strong views on whether or not it is acceptable to physically punish children. Are they automatically not ‘good enough’ parents because their approach is not universally accepted? The NSPCC and others in 2015 raised serious concerns about a judgment that appeared to ask for ‘allowances’ to be made for those from other cultures who smacked their children.
The DoE commented:
Practitioners reported concerns about making judgements and assumptions or being too accepting of behaviours, assessing whether parental practices were the cultural norm or individual beliefs and behaviours, and fears about damaging parent-practitioner relationships.
This can be a particularly acute problem when dealing with parents with learning disabilities or mental health problems, who may face discrimination and lack of understanding from professionals.
It is important to give every parent an opportunity to show they can be ‘good enough’, with support if necessary and professionals need to be wary of making automatic negative assumptions about certain parenting styles. The key issue of ‘significant harm’ must always be borne in mind.
The case of BR (Proof of Facts)  set out a useful precis of what is commonly identified as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ factors that might impact on parenting.
However the court stressed that the existence or otherwise of any of these factors proved nothing – children can still be abused in a supportive family environment or thrive in care of physcially/mentally disabled parents. But they offer a useful framework for an assessment, and highlight the areas that professionals will be looking at.
- Physical or mental disability in children that may increase caregiver burden
Social isolation of families
Parents’ lack of understanding of children’s needs and child development
Parents’ history of domestic abuse
History of physical or sexual abuse (as a child)
Past physical or sexual abuse of a child
Poverty and other socioeconomic disadvantage
Family disorganization, dissolution, and violence, including intimate partner violence
Lack of family cohesion
Substance abuse in family
Single or non-biological parents
Poor parent-child relationships and negative interactions
Parental thoughts and emotions supporting maltreatment behaviours
Parental stress and distress, including depression or other mental health conditions
- Supportive family environment
Nurturing parenting skills
Stable family relationships
Household rules and monitoring of the child
Adequate parental finances
Access to health care and social services
Caring adults who can serve as role models or mentors
Assessing parents’ capacity to change.
How can parents move from ‘not good enough’ to ‘good enough’? In July 2014 the Department of Education published ‘Assessing Parental Capacity to Change when Children are on the Edge of Care’
Executive Summary Introduction
Assessing Parental Capacity to Change when Children are on the Edge of Care is an overview of current research evidence, bringing together some of the key research messages concerning factors which promote or inhibit parental capacity to change in families where there are significant child protection concerns. It is intended to serve as a reference resource for social workers in their work to support families where children’s safety and developmental functioning are at risk. Its purpose is also to assist social workers and children’s guardians in delivering more focused and robust assessments of parenting capability and parental capacity to change, and assist judges and other legal professionals in evaluating the quality of assessment work in court proceedings. The report brings together research findings from a wide range of disciplines, which are not otherwise readily available in one location for social workers, family justice professionals and other practitioners with safeguarding responsibilities.
The research evidence covered in this report confirms that change is both important and necessary when children are suffering abuse and neglect. However it also makes it clear that change is difficult for everyone, but even harder for those parents who are struggling with an interlocking web of problems. It also takes time. Change is a complex process, and although it can be supported and promoted through effective interagency interventions, it cannot be imposed. It will not happen unless parents are proactively engaged. These are the key messages from the review.
The report notes:
- The assessment of parenting capability and capacity to change needs to reflect the complex reality of child protection cases, including consideration of the individual challenges and wider environmental problems faced by families; how multiple problems interlock; and the potential impact of factors such as coercion or the pressure on parents to present themselves in a positive light.