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When Is a Parent ‘Good Enough’?

For her evaluations, Lamb follows clinical guidelines, which include observing the adults in their role as parents, as she was doing with the mother and daughter at the lake. She describes a mother who mocked her child for hurting herself, instead of kissing her finger—a sign, Lamb told me, of “not being able to cope with a child who ne something from you.”

She also carefully studies how children react to their birth parents. One thing she looks for is what’s called “secure attachment,” or an impression that the child can depend on the parent to be there when the child feels unsure or afraid. “Insecure attachment,” meanwhile, could manifest itself in several ways. Anxious attachment might mean an extremely clingy child; avoidantly attached children act as if they don’t need the parent; a disoriented child freezes or simply doesn’t know what to do.

Even when everyone—the evaluator, the social worker, the judge—tries to execute her part perfectly, the child-welfare system can be heart-wrenching and unfair. Much of what determines whether parents’ rights are terminated is how well they work with their social worker, says Julianne Woolard, an attorney who has worked with Lamb. The process can require a level of social skills and diplomacy that many people—especially low-income mothers and fathers—haven’t learned. “It’s sitting through meetings with 10 people at a table, talking about you, talking about your parenting skills,” Woolard says. “It’s tough.”

Certain parental afflictions tend to be punished more harshly than others. Fetal alcohol syndrome is shockingly widespread, but as Lamb writes, “If we removed children from all the homes of people struggling with alcoholism, it would be hard to find enough foster homes for these kids.” And Lamb repeatedly describes how we—society, the system, and sometimes even children themselves—seem to expect much more from mothers than from fathers. “Mothers who don’t protect are always worse than fathers who abuse,” she writes.

Parents themselves vary widely. Poor people and rich people often have different definitions of “good enough” parenting; they might have been raised differently and cope with different amounts of stress in adulthood. A parenting tactic that is merely strict in one mother’s hands can appear cruel when performed by a mother who is already considered suspect.

Money, in part, determines who gets to be mean with impunity. The infamous “tiger mother,” Amy Chua, has said she once rejected her children’s handmade cards because they weren’t made with enough care. At one point in the book, Lamb hints that had a less wealthy and accomplished mother treated her children that way, she might have lost access to her children. It would be rare, Lamb told me, for somebody to report a wealthy-looking mother to the police if she were seen criticizing her child in public. “It’s interesting to think about who has a right to be verbally abusive to their child, and it seems like with money, you do have that right,” she says.