Tag Archives: good enough parenting

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.



Parents with Learning Disabilities/Difficulties

What is a learning disability or difficulty?

This post contains information taken from talk by Beth Tarleton from the University of Bristol at the St John’s Chambers Fair Access seminar on 4th December 2014.

Mencap describe it in this way:

A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life.

A parent with a ‘learning disability’ has a IQ below 70; a parent with a ‘learning difficulty’ has an IQ above 70, but both parents may struggle with the same difficulties. Often, mainstream services don’t have experience of working with adults with learning disabilities or learning difficulties [LD] and may not use specialist assessments.

There is little reliable data about how many parents currently face such challenges; there is an estimate of 53,000 in the UK with a diagnosed learning  disability. Dr Sue McGaw (1997) estimated there are 250,000 parents with learning difficulties known to health and social services agencies in the UK.


What challenges do parents face with LD in care proceedings?

Best Beginnings describe it in this way:

Many people who have a learning disability prefer to use the term “learning difficulty”.
A person with an IQ of less than 70 can be diagnosed as having a learning disability.
Around 7% of adults with a learning disability are parents, but most have a mild to borderline impairment, which may make it difficult to identify them as they will not have a formal diagnosis.
Around 40% of parents with a learning disability do not live with their children. The children of parents with a learning disability are more likely than any other group of children to be removed from their parents’ care.
Parents with a learning disability are often affected by poverty, social isolation, stress, mental health problems, low literacy and communication difficulties.

Parents with LD may suffer discrimination from professionals who have little relevant experience and who make assumptions about what parents with LD can or cannot do. This leads to parents with LD often fearing intervention from state agencies. The parents may perceive:

  • Opposition to their desire to parent
  • People assuming the pregnancy was a mistake
  • Assumptions that their parenting capacity won’t improve
  • Negative expectations/stereotypes about their parenting ability
  • Their learning difficulty is automatically equated with an inability to parent
  • People don’t given enough consideration to other environmental or social factors which could impact on parenting difficulties.

There is no consensus from research that children of parents with learning difficulties will automatically face poor outcomes; some studies find that children born to parents with LD are vulnerable due to poor parenting; other studies report that children can do well in the care of their parents if the parents are given support and help.

There needs to be a recognition from support services that parents with LD need life-long support and that support needs to be effective, making provision of information accessible to parents. Effective support services will:

  • cover the family life cycle and a variety of situations
  • offer a co-ordinated approach across services
  • be family-centred in approach and support children in their own right
  • provide accessible and understandable information about parenting
  • recognise the strong association between supportive social networks and the positive psychological well-being of parents with LD
  • include a range of services
  • assess/educate parents in their own homes and using their own equipment, wherever possible.


Case law

Medway Council v A & Ors (Learning Disability; Foster Placement) [2015] EWFC B66 (2 June 2015) deals with the failures of the LA to be fair to a parent with LD.

The court cited from the judgement of Baker J in Re X Y X (Minors) [2011] EWHC 402 (Fam):

132. The last thirty years have seen a radical reappraisal of the way in which people with a learning disability are treated in society. It is now recognised that they need to be supported and enabled to lead their lives as full members of the community, free from discrimination and prejudice. This policy is right, not only for the individual, since it gives due respect to his or her personal autonomy and human rights, but also for society at large, since it is to the benefit of the whole community that all people are included and respected as equal members of society. One consequence of this change in attitudes has been a wider acceptance that people with learning disability may, in many cases, with assistance, be able to bring up children successfully. Another consequence has been the realisation that learning disability often goes undetected, with the result that persons with such disabilities are not afforded the help that they need to meet the challenges that modern life poses, particularly in certain areas of life, notably education, the workplace and the family.

133. To meet the particular difficulties encountered in identifying and helping those with a learning disability in the family, the government published in 2007 “Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability”. In their closing submissions, Miss Ball and Miss Boye contended that such good practice guidance is required because there is little evidence of effective joint working between adult and children’s services and practitioners in each area rarely have a good working knowledge of the policy and legislative framework within which the other is working. They submitted that local authorities frequently do not take account of the fact that, if children are to be enabled to remain in their own families, a specialist approach to a parent with a learning disability is absolutely central to any work that is done, any protection which is offered and any hope of keeping the family together. The 2007 guidance points out, inter alia, that a specialised response is often required when working with families where the parent has a learning disability; that key features of good practice in working with parents with a learning disability include (a) accessible and clear information, (b) clear and co-ordinated referral and assessment procedures, (c) support designed to meet the parent’s needs and strengths, (d) long-term support where necessary, and (e) access to independent advocacy; that people may misunderstand or misinterpret what a professional is telling them so that it is important to check what someone understands, and to avoid blaming them for getting the wrong message; that adult and children’s services and health and social care should jointly agree local protocols for referrals, assessments and care pathways in order to respond appropriately and promptly to the needs of both parents and children; and that, if a referral is made to children’s services and then it becomes apparent that a parent has a learning disability, a referral should also be made to adult learning disability services. The guidance also stresses that close attention should be paid to the parent’s access needs, which may include putting written material into an accessible format, avoiding the use of jargon, taking more time to explain things, and being prepared to tell parents things more than once.”

Another important case is re D (A Child) (No 3) [2016] EWFC1 which looked at how parents could be supported at home to care for their children (although in this case the court concluded that the children should be removed). Suesspiciousminds identified some useful questions put to the court by the parents’ lawyers:

  1. Were the things that happened to this child a result of parental deficiency, or were they frankly things that could happen to any child and any parent, but they were pathologised because of the parents known issues?
  2.  Were the failings here attributable to the parents, or the support provided?
  3. Is there such a thing in law as reparative care, or is insisting that a child needs higher than good enough care simply a social engineering argument in disguise (topical, given the proposed reforms to adoption)
  4. Is a parent with learning difficulties treated differently (or discriminated against) than a parent with physical disabilities?
  5. Is a plan that involves extensive professional support and carers really harmful to a child, or is it the sort of thing that happens all the time with children whose parents are very rich?


Academic Research

Parents with learning difficulties, child protection and the courts

Professor Tim Booth from the University of Sheffield carried out research in this area which was published in 2004. He noted key features of professional practice and service organisation that undermined parents in their parenting and heighten their vulnerability. Parents with LD are disproportionately represented in care proceedings and have a high risk of having their children removed from their care. He noted the impact of ‘system abuse’ or setting up vulnerable parents to fail by depriving them of adequate support:

  • System abuse – meaning policies and practices that harm the families they are supposed to support or protect. System abuse is the unacknowledged scourge of families (see, for example, Booth and Booth, 1998, chapter 9). It is rampant, pervasive and destructive of family life…
  • Competence-inhibiting support – meaning support that deskills parents, reinforces their feelings of inadequacy and undermines their independence.

Parents with LD and advice about the law

There is also research from the University of Bristol in July 2013 ‘What happens when people with learning disabilities need advice about the law’ 

The report concluded that:

The research confirms the findings of previous research that access to legal services for people with learning disabilities remains problematic. The study adds detail and depth to our understanding of the barriers that they face, but also furnishes some of the potential solutions. It highlights the different needs of people with mild learning disabilities and those with more complex disabilities who rely on others to act on their behalf.

The report makes recommendations which centre on:

  • Developing accessible information for people with learning disabilities about the purpose of legal services and how they can be used;
  • Developing information and resources to clarify the routes that family carers and others can take to access specialist legal services on behalf of others;
  • Strengthening the awareness legal professionals have about learning disabilities through professional training and guidance;
  • The promotion of collaborative working between legal services and the social care sector.


The influence of ‘powerful others’

There is an excellent and informative article from the British Journal of Learning Disabilities about parents with learning disabilities and their experiences of having their children removed for not being ‘good enough’ parents. Its a useful reminder that there is no universal accepted definition of what exactly makes us ‘good enough’.

Thanks to Matt Harding for bringing this to our attention.

Accessible summary

  • People with learning disabilities might have their children taken from their care. If they do, what then happens to the parents?
  • I talked to nine mums who had their children taken away from their care. They told me about what this was like and how they felt.
  • This research gives advice to people (particularly professional people) about how to work better with mums who have had their children removed. It also shows that sometimes it is difficult for people with learning disabilities to know their rights and say what they think.


There is a recognised risk of parents with learning disabilities having their children removed. Little research has investigated the impact of this on these parents. This article looks at the perceptions of nine mothers with mild learning disabilities and their experiences having had their children removed. Interview data were analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). Findings reveal the struggles mothers with learning disabilities faced being ‘suitable mother’ – including presumed incompetence and scrutiny of parenting. Participants’ responses to having had their children removed are looked at and support reviewed. Finally issues of power were highlighted throughout Participants’ accounts and the impact of this is discussed. Clinical implications indicate areas for service improvement.


There appears to be an overwhelming influence of ‘powerful others’ upon the lives of mothers with learning disabilities. Before they even have a child, society seems to suggest they should not. When they do have their child, however, they appear to have to be better than ‘good enough parents’ and seem set up to fail by the standards of those monitoring them (Chinn, 1996 cited in Edmonds 2000). When the mothers do ‘fail’, powerful others remove the child. There seems little negotiation in this process. Few mothers appear to have advocates and the child is often then adopted –a decision sometimes not even made through court. To the mothers, the decision appears a foregone conclusion over which they have little control or choice.

What then do the mothers do? How do they cope? They are left feeling helpless and bereft. They could turn to others for help but past experience has taught them that this may not be beneficial. Moreover, for many mothers it might mean turning to those who removed their child in the first place. Should mothers reveal their true feelings it might only serve to prove it was right to remove their children. Worse still, it could support the removal of yet more of her children. The mothers’ voices and feelings therefore seem to remain hidden and they attempt to block out upsetting thoughts and reminders. It appears their only solace is that one day their child might return. Meanwhile any contact will suffice. However, all this once again appears to rest in the hands of powerful others.

Useful resources


  • ‘Care Proceedings and Learning Disabled Parents: A Handbook for Family Lawyers’ by Abigail Bond. A handbook for all those involved in care proceedings where one or both of the parents is learning disabled. The book sets out the relevant governmental policy and guidance in this area; examines the statutory framework relevant to adult learning disability social workers and children s services social workers where there is a parent with a learning disability; considers and analyses the legal and practical arguments and issues likely to arise in learning disability cases.
  • Competency based assessment of support needs: PAMS 3.0 is a complete Parent Assessment Application used by social workers, psychologists and other professionals across the UK and abroad. Developed by psychologist Dr Sue McGaw.