What It Means to Be a Good Parent

When I was a child, the pressure on parents wasn’t anything like it is among so many people today. My mother’s generation didn’t seem angst-ridden about its parenting. Among her friends, none felt compelled to have a natural birth, nurse their babies or share a bed. There was no attachment parenting, and regularly leaving your baby or toddler with a 12-year-old babysitter was commonplace.

By the time I had a baby, things had changed. I poured over books before and during pregnancy, and relied on a veritable library once my son was born. I was determined to do everything “right.” Nonetheless, I felt plagued with self doubt and internalized, quite negatively, a shifting society’s expectations about parenthood.

I well remember clinging to a mentor’s advocacy of English pediatrician and psychoanalysist Donald Winnicott’s concept of “good enough parenting.” She’d raised four happy and healthy children, and her wise counsel got me through.

I’ve been observing other parents recently, nonhuman ones. Virtually every year a pair of ducks–sometimes mergansers, sometimes mallards, sometimes black ducks — arrive at our pond in spring with their ducklings. One summer I watched in horror as more than half of the ducklings disappeared in 24 hours. I even saw one plucked off by a crow and ran, shouting, toward the pond to save the duckling, to no avail. I ached for the mother, perhaps inexperienced, learning in this awful way what it means to be a good enough parent.

Because for ducks, good enough parenting means keeping your ducklings from predators until they’re old enough to fly.

This year I’ve been marvelling at a black duck mother with her nine half-grown ducklings. Every day I watch her through binoculars from our living room window, exclaiming out loud, “What a good mom you are!” She marches them to and from the pond, through the protective tall grass, preceding them into the mowed areas to make sure the coast is clear before calling them all in a quick line to the pond.

This morning we awoke to a downpour. So much rain fell so quickly that a puddle formed on the grass near the pond. Mama duck, perhaps confident that predators wouldn’t be out in the rain, brought her ducklings to the pond, but on the way they stopped in the glorious-to-a-duckling puddle.

I wonder sometimes whether she is full of anxiety, worrying about her nine charges; whether she endures her own sort of bird angst, or whether she is confident that she is a good enough mother. I cannot know what she thinks and feels, but when I watch her, she seems to trust herself to raise them right, to keep them alive until they fly the proverbial coop.

I think there’s something to learn from her. She is protective, certainly, but she ventures far and wide with her ducklings. She scurries them to safety, but she indulges them, too — as in the puddle. From my vantage, she is preparing them for the wide world, neither too coddling nor too lax. Good enough.

For all you parents out there, perhaps she can be a soothing balm on the anxiety fostered by a relentless pressure to do everything just right — as if there is a “just right” to be found in every moment, every decision. Perhaps it’s enough to be good enough.

Good enough is a vague goal, but here’s some of what good enough means to me:

  • Ensuring our children are well fed, well rested, well loved and deeply appreciated for who they are.
  • Striving to impart and nurture the most important values in them, such as kindness, compassion, respect, generosity, honesty and responsibility.
  • Teaching them to be good critical and creative thinkers in a world that needs their good minds along with their big hearts.
  • Helping them find the place where what they care about in the world, what they are good at and what they love come together in a path that suits them, not us.

All the rest is gravy.



Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.


Image courtesy of Edwin Barkdoll.


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago


Sheri D.
Sheri D4 years ago

Thanks for writing this article.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra4 years ago

Thank you Zoe, for Sharing this!

Phillipa W.
Phillipa W4 years ago

these days, there actually are people who will pick and pick and pick on parents (especially mothers) and you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. Why they've chosen to pinpoint mothers as the natural enemies of children I have no idea. Having said that, in general normal society it's not really an issue. Not everyone's out to show off how great they are just by putting everyone else down.

Pamela Tracy
Pamela Tracy4 years ago

The new violence in society has brought about this pressure...not saying that in the early days of our country families had the same problems and more. We have an entire generation of young girls who have kids and young boys who have kids..this does not make for a better society unless these teens can be educated and be wisened up. The pressure is brought to bear on families by organizations who offer help to young families or to families who have suffered homelessness in this wicked society that the banks and wall street put us all in, while they still take home millions. I would never want to be a person that regulates any of these programs and some people who do should not be in those jobs, either.

Amanda M.
Amanda M4 years ago

This makes me feel somewhat better about the way I'm raising my children. Work comes first, and I've been blasted by other parents because I *gasp!* make my children do CHORES! If they get bad grades, then they need to knuckle down and study harder. My kids are allowed to play unsupervised (as long as they're with their friends and don't stray from pretedermined boundary lines), and I don't freak if they get scrapes, bumps, bruises, etc.-I've told them that if they make it to adulthood completely physically unscathed, then they haven't lived. They do have limits on TV, computer, and video game time (2 hours combined total is the limit), and they don't have iPods, tablets, smartphones, or anything like that-I'd rather they be as "unplugged" as possible.

So we don't keep up with the Joneses, and I'm NOT a helicopter mom who insists on bubble-wrapping her kids. SO WHAT? They're learning responsibility for their actions, they do have limits and get actual discipline when they get out of line, and they're going to become adults who are actually capable of taking care of themselves and making solid contributions to society. Call me crazy, but that's a GOOD thing!

Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper4 years ago


Elaine Pischke
Elaine Pischke4 years ago

Also, I did a lot of babysitting, starting at about age 12. Now I wonder what those people were thinking! I had no idea what I was doing.

Elaine Pischke
Elaine Pischke4 years ago

When I think back on the way I was raised... today my parents would probably be charged with neglect! But that was the norm then. My parents didn't go to all our school events/games, etc. We played outside, all day, in the woods, at neighbors' houses, across town. As long as we were home for dinner, no one cared. If my brother got D's on his report card, no one blamed my mom for being a bad mom or not making him do his homework. It was his own fault. Kids were allowed to be kids and parents were not constantly judged on their parenting skills.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran4 years ago

good advice.