Love is not always enough

Mamamia’s Managing Editor Lana writes: Last week it was reported that a 22-month old toddler had died of dehydration after allegedly being left unsupervised in a car. Her mother faced court and has been granted bail.

Blacktown Local Area Commander Superintendent Mark Wright described the incident as a tragedy. “I don’t know how many times we’ve issued warnings to people about the danger of leaving children unattended in a motor vehicle.” He said the temperature on the day was 27.5 degrees Celsius and the temperature inside the car could have been 40 degrees Celsius. “At the end of the day, a toddler, a 22-month-old child is solely dependant on their carer. The onus is on us as parents and carers to look after those children.”

I stuck on that last line just because it rings so true for me as a parent and as someone who worked in childcare. There is more to bringing up children than just loving them. Child psychologist Katharine Cook puts it best when she writes:

Love, in fact, is not “all you need” when it comes to being a good parent. Having a heart full of love and tenderness is wonderful, but not nearly enough to make you a good parent.

On a current affairs programme recently,Brendan Fevola was quizzed about his extra marital affairs, betrayal of his wife, gambling and drug and alcohol abuse. After describing how his wife finally left him, taking their two children, he was asked “Are you are good Dad?” His response was “Yes, I love them”. This answer highlights how this man…and many people…miss the point completely. Love is not enough to make you a good parent.

After many years in the child protection system, working with parents who have harmed their children, I can tell you that there are very few people who don’t love their children. I worked with a father who shook his baby so hard that she was left brain damaged. He would often plead with me that he loved his little girl, but just “snapped” when she didn’t stop crying. Despite his capacity to love, the affect of his behaviour on his child was devastating. Love was not enough to make him a “good parent”.

When parents decide to part ways and children are involved, it is often the case that both parents love their children dearly. Despite this love for their child, many parents find it extremely difficult to behave in a way that keeps their children feeling safe and secure. In many situations children are used as pawns in the battle between parents, are asked to report on the other parent’s behaviour or encouraged to choose between parents (sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly). During separation and divorce, some of the most loving parents can act in a way which is harmful to their child, often as a result of being consumed with feelings of anger, jealousy, guilt, and hurt. When a parent is overcome by his or her own needs, it becomes very difficult to put the needs of their children first. During time of stress, it is even more important to reflect on how behaviour and actions affect children. How does the child make sense of the situation? It is important to remember that although you may love your child dearly, it is more important that you act and behave in a way that keeps you child feeling safe and secure, despite the huge change in their life.


What we need to understand is that our feelings towards another, does not mean that they experience something positive. When I was 16, I remember being frustrated with my mum who was trying to teach me how to drive. I would shout at her “I am driving carefully” or “I am not speeding!” My mother then said something which has stuck with me for life. “You can say that you are a good driver, if your passenger feels safe and comfortable. You cannot say that you are a good driver because you feel happy with your skills, while the person next to you is terrified for their life”. It is not your experience of feeling good or competent; it is how the other person experiences what you do.

This should be the mantra for all parents and carers who want to feel that they are doing a good job with their children. How does the child feel? It is their experience of safety and security that determines whether you are doing a good job.

Psychologists and parenting experts constantly tell parents that “consistency” is the key to managing a child’s behaviour. Why? Because consistency, routine and “sameness” mean that there are no surprises. When a little person is trying to understand how things work in the world, it is so reassuring to them when their parent is boring and predictable!

Don’t get me wrong, we can never be totally consistent and there is no human on earth who will not “give in” to demands occasionally. I suppose though, the key is reflecting on our own behaviour and asking ourselves “am I helping my child to make sense of the world?” What am I teaching my child? Does my behaviour help him or her feel safe and secure?

Safety and security is not overprotection….it is not keeping your child by your side every second….it is not wrapping them in cotton wool. It is providing a base for them to explore. It is helping them work out what they are feeling. It is helping them understand why the world works in the way it does.

Anyone can love a child, but not everyone can give a child the feeling of safety and security. That is what makes a good parent.

Katharine Cook is a Child and Family Psychologist who works with people to manage complex issues and solve problems creatively. With fifteen years experience in Australia and abroad, Katharine currently works in Private Practice in Sydney helping adults, adolescents and children with a wide range of psychological issues.

Do you think anybody can be a parent? Does having or loving a child make you a “good” parent?


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