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Reflections Magazine : Reflections Magazine Issue 51
In the early 1950s Donald Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst, developed the theory of the 'good enough' mother. He was responding to the popular idea of the 'perfect mother', an ideal that he saw causing guilt and anxiety in otherwise competent mothers who worried that they were somehow failing to measure up to what was, in fact, an unrealistic and unachievable standard. Winnicott argued that children were resilient -- the human race would not have survived if they weren't -- and that provided mothers (or, as we would say today, parents) were 'good enough', most of the time, then occasional 'failures' were unlikely to be harmful. In fact, he argued, such failures were actually important for children's development. Without them children would never learn to live in the real world, as opposed to a world of constant adult attention and cosseting. Like the famous opening lines of Dr Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care (1972), "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do" , Winnicott's message was one of reassurance. The 'good enough' mother no longer had to measure up to perfection - she simply had to be good enough. It wasn't an excuse for laziness or poor parenting. 'Good enough' was still a high standard, but by allowing some leeway, it took away the pressure and anxiety of feeling the need to always get it right. It took away the pressure to be perfect. These days no one seems to remember Winnicott. I recall being taught about him at university but the decision to include him amongst the more well known theorists -- such as Piaget and Vygotsky - must have been a personal one on the part of our psychology lecturer, because no one else I know has ever heard of him. His idea of the 'good enough' mother though, has always stuck with me, perhaps because in the midst of so much theory, it seemed so commonsense and down to earth. Today perfection remains an alluring and enticing goal. Indeed, who wouldn't want to be perfect? And yet perfection, despite its seeming attractions, is in fact a poor motivator. While high expectations are, as the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) reminds us, important, such expectations need to be realistic if they are to be achievable. When we use perfection as the benchmark against which to measure ourselves, we almost always fall short -- and usually respond by feeling either resentful, or guilty, or both. I am reminded of the dangers of perfectionism, and of Winnicot's response to it, when I talk to educators about the EYLF and the National Quality Framework (NQF) and how educators perceive their own role within both of the frameworks. The introduction of the EYLF and NQF represent two of the most important and positive developments for the Australian early childhood field for a generation. And yet, for some educators, their introduction has produced an unintended sense of disempowerment and anxiety. In some cases, this is simply a natural reaction to change. In others however, there is a feeling that the role of educators is now so complex, and the expectations so high, that it is all increasingly unachievable. Of course, for some educators -- those whose practice is outdated, tired or simply poor -- the EYLF and NQF should be challenging and demanding, even confronting. However, when experienced and capable educators are just as anxious, then it seems that something may be going awry. I don't think the problem lies with the frameworks. The EYLF and NQF were designed to challenge and provoke our thinking, but the intention was not to overwhelm and demoralise. It seems to be more about our response to the very idea of standards and expectations, and the misconception that they demand perfection from us. In working with the new frameworks we need to be careful that in applying high expectations to ourselves, we do not inadvertently head down the road to perfectionism. It doesn't have to be that way. Read carefully, the EYLF and the National Quality Standard (NQS), provide ample evidence that perfectionism is not the answer. Such a path however is difficult to avoid, if only because perfectionism is such a pervasive idea. We live in a society that idealises the perfect life, the perfect job, the perfect body, the perfect family. We are bombarded with the message that perfection is both possible and desirable. In the face of this, it is hard not to be sucked in, despite the fact that Author: Luke Touhill Early Childhood Consultant THE "Good Enough" TEACHER 18 "I would rather be the child of a mother who has all the inner conflicts of the human being than be mothered by someone for whom all is easy and smooth, who knows all the answers, and is a stranger to doubt." Donald W. Winnicott, 1955.
Reflections Magazine Issue 52