How to be a “good enough” digital parent

by | Feb 10, 2023

Parenting is intense work. 

The highs are really high. The lows are really low. And all the playing, guiding, limit setting, encouraging, planning, monitoring—in short, all the work—in between can be downright exhausting. 

The idea of parenting as a verb that you do rather than a thing that you are is relatively new. Google’s Ngram viewer shows the word parenting entering our lexicon only in the 1970s. Compared to parents raising their kids in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, today’s parents—including working parents—spend more time interacting with their children.1Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship between Parents and Children (New York: Macmillan, 2016); Jennifer Senior, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (London: Hachette UK, 2014). If you randomly zoomed in on a stay-at-home mother in the 1960s, odds are she would be spending less time on the ground (literally) engaging with her child than a parent in 2023 with a full-time job outside the home. 

This trend tracks in my family. I’ve listened to my father and uncle talk about their 1950s childhood, recalling stories of the mischief they regularly got into during the vast expanses of unstructured and unsupervised time they had after school, on weekends, and during school breaks. 

As a child growing up in the eighties, I had sports and music lessons, after-school clubs and summer camps to keep me busy. And even then, my childhood seems less supervised than my son Oliver’s. 

Take going to the beach. When I was a kid, my mother would leave me to play in the sand with the “beach toys” I had raided from the kitchen cupboards (mixing bowls, measuring cups, the odd turkey baster and egg beater) while she sunbathed beside me. Thirty years later, both my mother and I are covered in sand as we build castles, dig holes, and search for shells with Oliver.

The mom influencers on social media churn out daily “inspiration” for how I can (should) be filling my time with Oliver—by creating sensory stations, teaching him to code with Lego or with an egg carton, building a water park in our backyard (if we had a backyard), and making lots and lots (and lots) of crafting projects. Don’t get me wrong, there are some fabulous ideas out there from some truly awesome moms. (Sensory stations are actually pretty great.) But it does turn up the pressure a bit on one’s parenting decisions when you encounter so many (stylish, fit, attractive) moms crushing it online. (I’m grateful for mom accounts like this one that acknowledge the high expectations associated with “momming” and the persistent, nagging feeling that you’re never quite living up to them.)

The pressures associated with “intensive parenting” extend to our decisions and actions around technology. We should be limiting our children’s media use as much as possible…unless they’re learning to code and other skills we think they’ll need in an increasingly AI-powered world. We should be modeling the kind of moderation we want to see in our kids, yet we struggle to resist the pull of phone notifications, auto-playing videos, and scrolling through our social media feeds.  

All of this can make for a lot of parental guilt. I am no stranger to feeling like I’m failing to live up to the impossible ideals of parenting in the 2020s. But, at least when it comes to technology, my guilt has subsided considerably since I embraced being a good enough digital parent.

I write about the good enough digital parent in my book, Technology’s Child, but, as I note there, the idea first emerged during a conversation I had with a group of researchers in October 2018 about the enormous pressures that parents face when it comes to managing their children’s media use. 

Pediatrician Donald Winnicott first introduced the idea of the “good enough mother” in the middle of the twentieth century.2W. Winnicott, “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 41 (1960): 585–595. (With expectations for fathers considerably lower back then, the good enough father, I guess, was taken for granted.) I like to imagine that Winnicott would be okay with me updating things for the twenty-first century, so let’s talk instead about the good enough parent

For Winnicott, not being responsive to your child 100 percent of the time is not just okay, it’s essential. Consider what would happen if a child’s every question were answered, every bid for attention satisfied, every jam unjammed. For one, parents would be even more exhausted than they are now. But that child would also never learn to figure their way out of frustrating situations, search for alternative solutions, or manage feelings of disappointment and boredom. These are critical skills for children to learn, needed to cope with the inevitable challenges and setbacks that come with living a life. They’re nearly impossible to learn when someone’s always ready to step in and solve the problem or alleviate the boredom. 

The good enough parent isn’t 100 percent responsive to their children 100 percent of the time, not because they don’t care or have better things to do (though these things might occasionally be true), but because children can’t develop into self-actualized individuals under such circumstances. Yes, it’s important for children to have a consistent source of comfort and guidance, but they also need space to develop their own strategies to comfort and guide themselves. 

The good enough parent doesn’t settle for imperfection but embraces it, both as a way to support their children’s resilience and as a way to stay sane during the exhilaration and exhaustion of parenthood.

The good enough digital parent does the same thing, but with technology. Instead of curating a select list of media content after studying the reviews on Common Sense Media (because who has time to do that, really?), they might experiment with different amounts and types of content, some of their choosing, some chosen by their children. They’ll take note of how their kids act after playing a certain video game or watching a particular TV show. Sometimes they’ll decide the amount is too much, or the content isn’t appropriate. Good enough digital parents make their share of mistakes, but they learn, adjust, and move on.

The same applies to their own media use. Good enough digital parents try to keep their tech-based distractions to a minimum, but they’re also pretty sure the occasional glance at their phone while playing with their kids won’t irreparably damage their relationship to them. (There’s research to back this up.) They might even use such distractions as a teachable moment: “Look at this, I’m getting totally distracted by my phone! Let me put it away and get back to what we were doing.” And, if their children are old enough, this could be a good opportunity to explain how phones and the apps on them are designed specifically to make them hard to ignore.

Good enough digital parents sometimes have work tasks that need to get done at an inconvenient time for the family. Although such situations are ideally kept to a minimum, they can be an opportunity for children to figure out how to occupy their time when there isn’t someone on call to occupy it for them. (This lesson isn’t always going to work if time is really short and energy and patience are really low. At these times, putting on a TV show might just have to do.) 

In short, good enough digital parenting isn’t an excuse to avoid your least favorite parenting duties. It’s an opportunity to embrace your humanness and channel it into learning experiences for both you and your child. 


  • 1
    Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship between Parents and Children (New York: Macmillan, 2016); Jennifer Senior, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (London: Hachette UK, 2014).
  • 2
    W. Winnicott, “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 41 (1960): 585–595.