How to be a Good Enough Parent
Attachment theory is a popular topic in psychology these days. It posits that children who have strong and healthy attachment bonds grow up with an inner sense of stability and security that allows them to explore the world and develop their unique, authentic personalities. We call these people “securely attached.” Their basic worldview is “I'm ok and the world is ok.”
Research has shown that securely attached people have high self-esteem; they are willing to take risks towards their goals; they seek out social connection and support and tend to have trusting, long-term relationships. These are all the things we want for our children (and ourselves, our partners, our friends).
There’s good news: Bowlby, the original researcher in the field of attachment, showed that parents don’t have to be perfect to raise secure children. They just have to be "good enough,” which means expressing a few important qualities a good portion of the time. As you’ll see, many of them are the same qualities cultivated in mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation. They are:
First and most important, a parent raises a secure child by being consistently present - not just physically present (and, say, staring at a smartphone), but emotionally and attentionally present with their child. You can google the famous “still-face” experiments to learn about the serious negative effects when a parent is physically present but non-responsive to a baby.
A good enough parent pays close attention, is interested in and attunes to the emotional and mental experiences of their child. This attunement allows the child to feel seen and known and helps a developing baby learn how to make sense of their own and others emotions and mind states. Another word for this quality is empathetic connection.
Healthy parents comfort their child by soothing and reassuring them when they are distressed, caring for the pain in whatever way they can and then assuring the child that they will be ok.
Good enough parents express delight in their child’s learning, development and in their being, so that the child learns to connect positive emotions with their developing sense of self (i.e., self-esteem). To get a sense of this quality of expressed delight, think of your friend or relative who shares unadulterated pride when their baby learns to roll over, and insists that you come watch. However fascinating (or not) you might find watching a baby roll over, this enthusiastic parenting behavior is exactly the kind of expressed delight that builds self esteem in a developing child.
And finally, the good enough parent champions their child’s independent self-development. They are curious about their child’s interests and support them to pursue them, regardless of the parent’s interests or desires for them. This helps the child learn how to explore their unique inner and outer world. This skill requires us as parents to let go of our illusion of control over our children’s lives; we can’t map out their future, and we can’t protect them from the inevitable ups and downs of life. We can help them cultivate resilience in the face of life’s challenges.
As I’ve studied healthy attachment behaviors in my role as a mentor with youth, I’ve been struck by how aligned the qualities of secure parenting are with the fundamental skills we cultivate in mindfulness and loving-kindness meditations.
First, mindfulness involves coming back again and again to present-moment awareness with kindness and curiosity - developing interested and consistent attention towards each moment of experience.
Second, loving-kindness meditation cultivates empathy and compassion towards ourselves and others. We’re building attunement so that we can better understand and perhaps comfort those in pain. And we’re learning to cultivate happiness at other people’s happiness, however they experience it.
Finally, both mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation build equanimity. Ultimately, we aren’t in control of other people’s happiness or unhappiness, a lesson that is particularly important, and difficult, in the case of children. (In her 10% Nicer course, Sharon calls equanimity the “secret sauce” of loving-kindness meditation.)
Parents have a unique responsibility to lay the foundation for the wellbeing and success of our children. By developing these meditative tools (all available in the app), you’re on track to cultivating everything you need to be “good enough.” Just keep going.
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