Back in prehistoric times when my wife and I were busy doing our parenting, I paid very little attention to the many books that promised to tell me how to do the job really well. My loss, I suppose. Yet I can’t help thinking my omission may have reflected a healthy instinct.
After all, if I’d spent a lot of time studying some expert’s version of what an ideal father was like, chances are good that I’d only have ended up depressed at how far short my own efforts fell — and at the realization that, no matter how many books I read, they probably wouldn’t get a whole lot better. Being a parent is hard enough without making yourself feel worse about your inadequacies than you already do. Let mediocre be mediocre, I say.
Perhaps it’s this inglorious personal history that moves me now, midway between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, to say few kind words on behalf of the sort of parents many of us either are or once were — parents, that is, who are not Wonder Mom and Super Dad but only good enough.
Being a parent is probably the most important job most people will ever have and one for which few receive any formal training. Under the circumstances, being good enough is no small thing, especially since the real-life alternative usually isn’t being Super Dad or Wonder Mom but being a total flop.
What does a good enough parent look like?
Good enough parents often don’t know just what to say or do in times of family crisis, but at least they stick around when things get tough and see it through to the end as best they can.
Good enough parents sometimes blow their stacks when provoked beyond endurance by their little darlings (or their spouses), but they usually don’t smash the furniture and they generally calm down fairly soon.
Good enough parents don’t really care that much about a lot of the things that interest their children (a good enough father, for instance, may not play basketball or have any interest in the sport), but they’re reasonably adept at faking enthusiasm for harmless stuff that fascinates their kids.
And religion? The notion of being good enough applies here too, but the standard of what that means in practice has to be a good deal higher.
“It appears that the relative religious laxity of most U.S. Catholic teenagers significantly reflects the religious laxity of their parents,” one researcher says. Studies of young people who care little or nothing about faith have shown that they generally are the products of homes where parents don’t care much about it either. This confirms the well-known rule of parenting that although your kids may not pick up your good habits, almost always they’ll pick up your bad ones.
That doesn’t mean a good enough parent has to be an honest to goodness saint, but at least he or she has to be seen giving it an honest try and continuing the effort day-in and day-out in ways kids can observe. Consider, too, that good enough parenting itself may be a way to sainthood.
In these confused times, when many Americans duck marriage and parenthood entirely, it would be foolish to chide those who still take up the challenge for not doing better at it. The message should be that they’re doing plenty — and something almost everybody can manage — by being good enough. And then, just possibly, they really will be Wonder Mom or Super Dad.