Book Review: A Good Enough Parent

Bruno Bettelheim. Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-27833-4. 377 pages

This is the first paperback edition of Bruno Bettelheim’s book which was published in 1987, and it is very good value at £12.95. Bettelheim was a man who achieved legendary status in his own lifetime which spanned eighty six years, and was chiefly famous for his pioneering work in the treatment of autistic children. He believed this book to be a summation of his lifelong efforts to discover and test what is involved and required for successful child-rearing. By ‘success’ he meant a child who is not necessarily successful in the eyes of the world, but who is satisfied with herself, can cope with life’s vicissitudes and who possesses an inner life which is rich and rewarding. He seldom gives advice, but he does explain how to cope with difficult situations when emotions are running high, parents want solutions which they then impose on their children which makes the situation worse instead of better. Listening is the key to successful parenting. Listening and under­standing what is going on in the child’s mind and what is happening in the encounter which may remind parents of similar episodes in their own childhood.

In any of the confrontations which frequently take place between parents and children, he suggests that the overwrought parent to stand back, review the situation calmly and try to understand how things look from the child’s perspective. We have to make her experience our own, but in the child’s way, not ours so that we gain a greater comprehension of her as a person.

Many parents are bewildered by their children’s behaviour. Bettelheim looks at academic parents, for example, whose children refuse to read. In one case study he shows how a child felt her parents spent far too much time on what interested them – reading, cultural activities etc. – and far too little on her. Result? She came to hate the very activities which she perceived as separating her from the people she loved.

Bettelheim is very against the use of punishment or criticism, believing it interferes with our main goals, which are that our children should love us, accept our values and want to live what we consider a normal life. There is an excellent chapter on the importance of play in developing selfhood and in integrating the child’s inner and outer worlds. He also deals with the difficulties resulting from a broken family, how children achieve a successful sexual identity, and how to survive the troubled adolescent years. All in all, a book packed with commonsense, a deep understanding of children, emin­ently readable and a good guide to the turbulence, trauma and infrequent rewards of parenthood.

Mavis Arnold