Find the joy in family life with realistic parenting

No two parents or children are the same  – for us that's the beauty of being here to support you and your child on what is a truly unique journey. 'Unique' is one of those words that's often used, but when it comes to what you're experiencing, or about to experience, there's no other term for it.

Our view is that you should be able to really see and enjoy your child's progression, without the pressure of comparison, but with the acknowledgement that parenting is sometimes hard work. There will be ups, there will be downs. We are all about realistic parenting. This is linked to the theory of 'good enough parenting', but it goes a step further – this is about celebrating, too!

Social comparison theory and parenting  

When you become a parent, everywhere you look there seems to be conflicting advice about what you should or shouldn't do for your baby.  

Social psychologist Leon Festinger described social comparison theory in 1954, which suggests that all people use social comparisons to support them to make judgements about themselves. The theory suggests that we all look at those around us and think about how we compare to our impression of them. We make downward, upward and lateral comparisons with others, so might see ourselves as better, worse or about the same as those around us. 

Finding ways to make ‘social’ supportive 

A visit to a baby or toddler group, or a scroll through social media could start you thinking that other people are doing a better job than you, and this might impact on how you view yourself.[1] Comparing real life with the idealised images on other people’s posts is so easily done. But, with your ‘realistic and positive parenting hat on’, you can remember that most of us share the positive aspects of our lives online.  

Finding ways to use social media and other groups as a means of support rather than comparison can be incredibly helpful – knowing you weren’t the only one awake at 3am, or hearing about another parent trying to smile through their toddler’s mammoth supermarket tantrum can be the reassuring ‘it’s ok’ you need at that moment – the thing that helps you take a breath and remember: you’re not failing, you’re human!     

Good enough parenting and the 1950s ‘good-enough mother’ 

We believe that what parents do is amazing and essential, but this doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect all the time. This is where the theory of ‘good enough’ parenting can be helpful.  

Although the term ‘good-enough mother’ might initially trigger the image of a pinny-wearing, kitchen-bound mummy, there's something really key in this concept suggested by paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1953. He put forward that trying to achieve perfection at all times is unrealistic because parents are human beings. Nearly 70 years on, this has never been truer as we juggle the challenges of being ‘switched on’ in a digital world and being ‘switched on’ as parents.  

Is good enough parenting an excuse for mediocrity? 

Of course, we all want to be the best parents we can. At My First Five Years, we say: aspiring to be 'good enough' is realistic and achievable, not an excuse to be a passive or ‘lazy’ parent – if ever there was such a thing! It removes the pressure to be perfect, with the increased likelihood of burnout that striving for perfection can bring.[4] It also frees us up to enjoy the parenting journey. This is where ‘good enough’ becomes realistic parenting. By taking the stress or guilt of not being perfect out of the equation – as far as that’s possible – we can learn to embrace the difficult moments as well as the highs, and at the same time help our child in their own emotional development.

Applying realistic parenting to everyday life 

You might plan to encourage your child to express the emotions they have, while calmly supporting them to understand the boundaries or limits you need to have in place. However, you’ll inevitably have moments like, after a long day at work, when faced with a difficult mealtime, you end up saying, “Just stop crying, it’s time to eat. You have to come now.” This might result in raised emotions, or very little food being eaten, and you might feel disappointed that you didn’t calmly follow the steps of naming your child’s emotions and supporting them to regulate. However, the idea of good enough parenting is that if you are sensitive and warm towards your child, you don’t need to be immediately responsive to their needs every time.   

If the end of day routine is feeling a bit much, you can acknowledge this, and say to your child that you need a moment to calm down before helping them. Your child will see how an adult regulates their emotions and might begin to find ways to calm themselves. They can also see how adults find strategies to behave differently next time. After the mealtime incident, you might say to your child, “I was feeling tired today and I didn’t give you time to calm down before you came to have tea. I wonder what we could do next time?”  

Keeping it real  

We champion realistic parenting because, although we know being a parent is amazing and brings real joy, you won’t find us saying it’s easy. But we know that informed parents can be empowered to do the very best for their children – with information based on science and research, backed up by genuine experience of what it’s like to be a parent.   

We’re here to keep reminding you to remove the pressure to be perfect. You love your child and put their needs first; you aim to be consistent and have fairly predictable routines, but you’re human and remembering that should remove some pressure.  

As a parent you won’t have all the answers: sometimes you might take advice from someone else and adapt it to your family’s needs.[5] Taking a break or finding support is also part of realistic parenting – you're continuing to put your child’s needs first by showing them how you look after your own wellbeing – which will teach them to look after themselves as they grow.  

Support for real parents  

Our app will support you to notice and celebrate the skills your child is mastering as they grow, as well as giving you some tips for looking after your wellbeing. Have a read of the articles too, as these will help you further understand your child’s development and how you can support them.   

You’ll find us on the app store by searching for My First Five Years.

We also recommend you take a few minutes to listen to our podcast on realistic parenting in which Jennie and Alistair talk about how having realistic expectations of our children can help us respond in the way we would all like to. 



[1] Vogels, E.A. & Perunovic, W.Q.E. (2020) Comparing the apple of my eye: Parental reactions to academic social comparisons of their elementary school-aged children. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 50, 41-52.   

[2] Coyne, S.M., McDaniel, B. & Stockdale, L.A. (2017). “Do you dare to compare?” Associations between maternal social comparisions on social networking sites and parenting, mental health, and romantic relationship outcomes. Computers in Human Behavior, 70, 335-340.   

[3] Mabey, C. & Kinghts, D. (2017). Leadership Matters: Finding Voice, Connection and Meaning in the 21st Century. London:Routledge.   

[4] Sorkkila, M. & Aunola, K. (2020) Risk factors for parental burnout among Finnish parents: The role of socially prescribed perfectionism. Jounral of Child and Family Studies, 29, 648-659.   

[5] Kellett, J. & Apps, J.(2009) Assessments of parenting and parenting support need. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Retrived from: Assessments of parenting and parenting support need | JRF Accessed on: 4th January 2022.