Although we all love our children, researchers ( 1,2) who study infant and child development document a need for something more, in order for a child to develop a true and solid appreciation of who they are in the world. With greater understanding of what contributes to healthy development in newborns, infants and children, it becomes clear that adequate "attunement" is also desirable.
To "attune" to our child means that we attempt to respond to his or her needs, particularly emotionally, resulting in the child’s sense of being understood, cared for and valued. Depending on the age and development of the child this means different things. Attuning to a two-year-old child in the midst of a temper tantrum will include not only responding with appropriate limits, but understanding what the emotional meaning of the outburst might be. Is he or she tired? angry? hurt? challenging limits to get clarity? In contrast, attuning to a newborn’s wails will always be an attempt at primary soothing, as limit setting of any kind would be inappropriate. To determine the "attuned" response, we must seek to truly understand the nature of the experience of the child and his or her needs, even though they cannot always tell us. The job of parenthood can be a highly challenging one!
Yet, if we can maintain a clear vision of our goal: to be as attuned as possible, we will inevitably learn more. If at first we do not succeed, sooner or later we will come to better understand our children and better able to meet their emerging needs. We will become better parents with practice and a vision of what we believe will make a difference in our children’s development. But the world is not a perfect place and we are not perfect parents. Though we will often meet our children’s needs, we will sometimes frustrate them. Our hope is to provide a matrix in which the frustration itself becomes a tool for building strength of character. Psychologists have termed this "optimal frustration". The key here is to determine what amount of frustration is overwhelming and will result in a breakdown of a healthy sense of self for the child, and what is benign or even advantageous to work through with appropriate emotional support. This balance creates the essence of the "good enough parent". (3)
The dilemma of "good enough" parenting is at the heart of parents’ questions about many things. One common example revolves around how to get a child to sleep through the night. What is too much crying and what is not? How soon should I get him or her in the middle of the night? Again the answers to these questions depend upon your child’s unique set of needs as well as your own. It also depends on your family’s style and values. In her book, The Sleep Book For Tired Parents,(4) Rebecca Huntley offers various strategies for walking this line of maintaining empathy and attunement to your child’s needs while taking care of your own.
As parents, we all naturally fail at times. But if we are committed to parenting as important work, we will be able to correct our mistakes and learn from the experience. Children do not need "perfect" parents. However children do need parents they can trust to reflect on their actions and attempt to bridge misunderstandings when they occur. This working through is an act of attunement and strengthens the bond between parent and child.
It is essential to remember that our failures can in part create the healthy disappointments that children must work through to gain strength. However, these are the inevitable failures that occur, despite our best and determined efforts to be attuned and to provide the most optimal environment we can for our children. Therefore we will not have to concern ourselves with perfection. Thankfully we can narrow our focus to being the best parent we can along this path of family making we have all chosen, and turn our attention towards a deeper understanding of what it means to be attuned to our children. Then we can rest assured that our natural failings will be enough to provide our children with some appropriate frustration along the way!
The following discussion is by no means exhaustive of the topic of healthy attunement or "good enough" parenting, as this would be beyond the possible scope of this article. Instead, I will attempt to touch on some of the most common ways that we as parents may misunderstand our children. I will focus on the ways this can happen, even when we are doing our utmost to be sensitive to our own child’s feelings based on our memory of our childhoods. I hope you will find some or parts of this discussion useful and applicable to your own situations.