Good Enough Parenting


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) [2015] 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.

Risk factors

  • 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
    Parental immaturity
    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
    Community violence

Protective factors

  • Supportive family environment
    Nurturing parenting skills
    Stable family relationships
    Household rules and monitoring of the child
    Adequate parental finances
    Adequate housing
    Access to health care and social services
    Caring adults who can serve as role models or mentors
    Community support

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.



8 thoughts on “Good Enough Parenting

  1. Sam

    This research, nor do the courts in some instances seem to take into account the additional difficulties posed by having an SEN child, who may not meet the goals set out such potty training or reading.

    1. Sarah

      I don’t understand this comment. A child with difficulties will not be judged alongside a child who does not have difficulties. Children can only usefully be compared with their peers who are similar.

  2. Sam

    In my experience they are , the difficulties are blamed on bad parenting rather than SEN. It could be that I have lost the postcode lottery again, but I have seen parents from other areas make similar comments.

  3. Sam

    I also should add that a child’s SEN needs are either recognised, exaggerated or diminished according to whether it helps the school, LA or other relevant body. For instance if you are in care proceedings according to the LA you child is vulnerable because of their SEN ,but if you require an ECHP their needs are minimal and something a parent can manage without any support. Just cynical.

  4. Sarah Phillimore Post author

    Sorry, I am talking about a child who is diagnosed with special needs. It would be perverse and wholly unreasonable to try to judge that child against a child who had not been so diagnosed.

    You are raising a different issue – that ‘diagnosis’ may depend on criteria which aren’t linked to the child’s actual needs, which I agree is deplorable.

  5. Sam

    Well then I am really confusing you I am also talking about children that have been diagnosed with special needs. For example a parent could be judged and their children removed or placed on a child protection plan for a child not attending school or running out of school, yet the same LA refuse appropriate SEN support for the child at school, which they are legally supposed to put in place.

    1. helensparkles

      The criteria for an ECHP is indeed harder to meet now and it isn’t diagnosis dependant. In some ways this is better than the previous statementing process, because it is more inclusive of emotional needs for example. The first decision taken is about whether someone is eligible for a statutory assessment for an ECHP. If that is agreed, the assessment becomes a statutory responsibility. This does not mean the outcome is an ECHP. During the assessment, the school have to put some recommendations in place and the process of that support is measured, there is also an EP assessment. I am advised this is all generally over 2 terms.

      The statutory nature of the process is fairly clear in so far as it dictates exactly how the process is carried out, there isn’t any flexibility. I’m not saying that LAs never get this wrong but it does mean that SEN children who are not assessed as needing an ECHP may also not have their support needs met. Schools do have some funding that they can use for supporting children, obviously how that is used will be dependant on the demographics of the school.

      Whilst this process is under the auspices of the LA, it is not children services. I’ve tried very hard to get an ECHP for one child, I don’t know the outcome yet, but I know it isn’t my decision, it is SENA’s. I don’t think you can blame anyone for that apart from a government who changed the statementing process, created the framework, and made it so rigid. I think it effectively excludes children who would previously have been supported, but that is just an anecdotal perspective.


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