Parenting with your Instincts

So I have been thinking lately about instincts and parenting. Probably one of the most common pieces of parenting advice that you hear is to not listen to all the (often contradictory) advice you get as a new parent and rather ‘follow your instinct.’ I 100% agree with this piece of advice. I truly believe that if you listen to your gut about what is best for your baby, your family and yourself you will make good choices.

But I have been thinking about this concept of ‘instincts’ lately and how it is presented as the antidote to advice overload. And how it ties in with ‘natural’ parenting. I have seen the linkage made a lot; natural parenting and instincts. And it makes sense, it appeals to our understanding of nature- that nature works on reacting to innate instincts.

In reading a bunch of the posts in the November Carnival of Natural Parenting. (You can check it out here if you are interested) a number of the bloggers I regularly read were talking about instincts in their posts. Jessica, over at This is Worthwhile spoke about being a natural parent as doing what “feels natural.” Kelly, over at Kelly Naturally wrote a post about following your parenting instincts when they choose not to circumcise their son.

These are both great posts (as I am sure many of the others in the carnival are). But in reading them they twigged some questions for me.

First off, if we all followed our parenting instincts would we all make the same choices? Because this is kinda how it is presented…. the persuasive argument for quite a few natural parenting methods are that a) your instincts would lead you to make this choice and b) it is natural and you just can’t argue with Mother Nature, she knows best. I tend to agree with argument b). Mother Nature is where its at. But the argument that billions and billions of parents would have the same instinct? I don’t know. People are pretty different. If you ran into a bear in a forest what would your instincts tell you to do? Do you think everyone else would have the exact same instinct?

The other question I have is how can you separate your ‘biological instincts’ or ‘nature instincts’ from our ‘learned instincts’ or ‘nurture instincts’? And are one set of instincts better then the other? If everything you have ever known was to do “x”, but maybe most other people would feel “x” goes against their instincts… you see where I am going with this? Very existential. But I wonder, you know?

The other thing I question is if our instincts are always ‘right’? I will give you an example. The other night Audrey woke up at about midnight and started SCREAMING. Which is very unlike her. But she had been sick and it might have been an ear infection or something, I don’t know. Anyway. She cried for well over an hour. I was there with her, trying to help her feel better, letting her know I was there. I talked to her and asked if she had a bad dream or if she had pain somewhere. She was too upset to communicate anything. I gave her advil and offered some water. And held her.

By 45 minutes in, with no idea what was wrong with my baby, my instinct was to cry. It took everything in me not to cry. Why did I try so hard not to cry? Because I was pretty sure part of why she was upset was that she was scared. And I knew logically that if I started to cry she would feel less safe and secure because she would take that to mean something was really wrong. (I do think there is a place for showing and sharing emotions with kids. I believe in being real with them. But 1am in the midst of an all out tantrum is not the time.)

So were my instincts wrong?

Or maybe I had two sets of instincts. My personal, how I relief stress and tension when I am upset, instincts. And my “mommy”, I must keep my baby feeling safe, instincts. Can we have two sets of instincts? Can our instincts tell us two different things?

I have also, on other occasions, when Audrey wakes up in the middle of the night and started to babble and cry a bit fought my instincts to go in that second, and rather give her a couple minutes. Because I know from experience that she often wakes up, babbles and then falls back to sleep in five minutes or less. Should I follow my instincts even though I know from experience that going into to her room in the middle of the night usually just gets her worked up and eventually she needs to fall asleep on her own? I know there are many people who would disagree that I should fight my instincts on this one, but they don’t know my kid.

I don’t write this at all as an argument against ‘natural’ parenting or any other school of parenting thought that advocates following our instincts. As I said from the get go- I think following your gut is good. I just think it is valuable to look at the basis for our beliefs. And the instinct-natural argument go hand in hand and are very seldom really deeply examined. I mean, suggesting that something is natural– well that is very hard to argue with.

But we do argue with it in other ‘hot topic’ debates. For example, humans are animals whom are biologically designed to be omnivores and historically were omnivores in nature. And yet there are many people who believe eating meat is wrong. And many of their reasons are very good (I am particularly persuaded by the environmental and health reasons.) But not eating meat is not ‘natural’. Does that make it wrong?

I know I am being argumentative here. And really truly, I don’t mean to. I am mostly just thinking out loud. But you hear so much of the same argument over and over again in terms of why one way is better then an other, isn’t think it is worth it to consider what that argument really means? Isn’t it reasonable to ask why instincts and nature are good? I am just saying that ‘instincts’ is not a perfectly definable concept. The word means different things to different people and trying to weed out what is an ‘instinct’ versus what is thoughts isn’t always easy. Furthermore, instincts are awesome, but where would we be without the other methods of decision making that make humans what we are: memory, critical thinking, problem solving, imagination. All of these tools in our brain are useful. And parenting is challenging- so chances are most of us need all hands on deck, so to speak.

I don’t know, what do you think?

21 responses to “Parenting with your Instincts

  1. kelly @kellynaturally November 12, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Thoughtful post, Kathleen, and Thank You for linking back to me. šŸ™‚

    I agree that we have a lot of tools in our toolbox, and I believe that we are best served taking measured bits of everything available to us. However, the amount of information out there – from people telling you what’s best, to what’s in your heart, to what you’ve experienced & developed over time (perhaps what you mentioned “learned instinct?”), to what science has proven – is massive, and can be overwhelming. It is in the midst of that, which I believe turning towards your gut instinct may be the best choice for what 1st to listen to – those really base feelings.

    Will it always be right? Perhaps not, but I think in MOST cases, it is. Have you ever read the book, Blink? It’s an interesting look at instinct. Also, Protecting the Gift is a parenting-centered look at instinct.

    • amoment2think November 12, 2010 at 1:15 pm

      I love your blog, Kelly! So I like to link back when I can.

      Totally- “learned instinct”- good point! It is all overwhelming, isn’t it.

      I loved the book Blink- it really made me think. I should check out the other one you mention too.


  2. clara November 12, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    Caution: rambling ahead. šŸ™‚
    I think there is instinct that is *in you* in your own personal ‘gut’. Part of your personality, your upbringing and your experiences. Your nature *and* your nurture, if you will. If you were raised in a safe, loving environment, your instincts re: safety and security would be very different than someone who was raised in an abusive environment. And then there is the 2 billion years of evolution instinct, which says “don’t let the baby feel pain.” “Cover your head when you hear a loud noise.”

    When I hear – and say – trust your instinct when you parent, what I understand it to mean is what Moxie of ask Moxie says – You are the best parent for your child. There are two people in the equation and you are made to understand each other. (a father or other partner has a relationship with the child too but not necessarily with his partner)

    It is a combination of morality and gut feelings. I didn’t circumcise my boys because a) I didn’t see a good ie: health related reason to do it b) their penises are their own c) I believe decisions about their bodies should be theirs when they are old enough.

    I didn’t seek advice on this topic, I didn’t read fifteen books about it, I didn’t query the Internet. I read a couple of impartial articles, conferred with my husband and we agreed. I call that trusting my instincts. Which is really just a way of saying – trusting my own moral code and acting in a way that reflects how I see the world. Based on who I am and who my kid is.

  3. Ginger November 12, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    As usual, you raise some excellent points for pondering. Which is, pretty much, one of my favorite things about your blog by the way, that you always make me think.

    For me, the thing I keep coming back to with the instinct is…it’s not always there. I mean, when I came home with Jackson, everyone said “oh, you’ll just know X” whatever X was. But honestly? No, I really didn’t. My instincts didn’t (and to an extent still don’t) kick in right away. I mean, yes, if he’s hurt or something, there’s a reaction that happens. But sometimes, it’s like “Kid, I don’t know WHAT you want”. So what do you do when you don’t have that instinct? Or when it’s so quiet and still that at 1am when the kid is screaming, you can’t hear it?

    Maybe it’s like Kelly said, it’s a case of looking inward after you’ve gotten other information. But to me, that still means that you’re looking outside to help guide the inside.

    • amoment2think November 12, 2010 at 7:48 pm

      True. Everyone says you will know what to do, but there were a lot of little things where I have no idea. I think I can follow my ‘instincts’ about some of the big things, but for some of the little decisions I feel lost. I felt this more so when Audrey was really little.. but with some of the new challenging toddler stuff too. Dealing with temper-tantrums effectively is NOT intuitive.

      • Briana November 14, 2010 at 12:34 pm

        I so agree with you there. My ‘instinct’ on what to do during tantrums (especially the first few times I was confronted with them) was to talk way too much and when that didn’t work, to throw a tantrum of my own. Bad, bad, bad. Now that I’ve been through it a few times, my instincts are getting better. But it is definitely not easy for me to put my own feelings aside and focus on re-establishing connection with my red-faced, foot-stomping, name-calling, roaring child.

      • amoment2think November 14, 2010 at 1:10 pm

        I so think it is one of the hardest things to do as a parent. Some days I do better then others. I think that is true for us all. I also think this one is a great example of why the prescription to ‘just follow our instincts’ is well intentioned, and sometimes helpful, but not without flaws.

  4. Perpetua November 12, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Yes, what Ginger said–about the instinct not always being there and also about you making us think. šŸ™‚ So, you know how I watch 16 and Pregnant? One of the young moms expressed her fear that she wouldn’t know what to do, and the baby’s father said, “Won’t your maternal instinct kick in?” Partly I feel like “the maternal instinct,” in the way it’s constructed in some situations, is a get out of jail free card for the father. Like, oh, you know how to do diapers–instinct! Ugh.

    Anyway, my point is, I do think we have a good sense of when our children are doing well and when they aren’t, which comes from knowing them as well as we do. But when it comes to the other stuff that’s supposed to be instinctual, a lot of it was anything but natural for me.

    Love the site redesign, by the way!

  5. slackerinc November 12, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    I could go on at some length as to why I think “follow your instincts” is kind of bogus and used to justify some shady stuff. But I’ll keep it simple and point out that the “Back to Sleep” campaign is a good counterpoint to this folk wisdom. Absent this medical advice, I think my instinct would be to put a baby to sleep on its belly, just as most parents used to do. It sure seems to be the way they are most comfortable. But in addition to the retrospective correlations that inspired the campaign in the first place, the institution of the campaign served as a prospective study: what will happen if we get millions of parents to change from what would be the default, and put their babies to sleep on their backs? Lo and behold, SIDS cases went way down. “Instincts” were wrong.

  6. janetlansbury November 12, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Ginger and Perpetua, I’m totally with you. I was planning to parent on instinct…but then I became a mom and felt so let down by mine. I think that’s why I relate so well to moms who can’t make breastfeeding work. That was pretty much the ONLY part that worked for me. The rest was a giant FAIL.

    I lucked into discovering tools that helped me structure my day, clarify my role and my objectives, and also made parenting a whole lot more interesting to me, fascinating even. And, yes, this guidance totally jived with my instincts, but my mind was engaged, too. That’s what I needed. In fact, this information was so inspiring to me that it changed my life.

    18 years later I’ve come to believe (and research supports this) that parenting wholly on instinct works wonderfully for repeating the way we were parented. If we want to make adjustments to that model it can help to seek out some tools and guidance from those who study early childhood development — psychologists, child development experts, educators. After all, we make the effort to train for far less important jobs than parenting. It’s not shameful to need help!

    Kathleen, great topic and post! Thanks!

  7. Megan November 13, 2010 at 12:26 am

    Great post, Kathleen.

    Great comments, everyone.

    That’s all I can muster right now. It’s been a long day.

  8. Chelsea November 13, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Hey Kathleen,

    So I have been thinking about this ever since we had that conversation in the car. You know, I was upset about yelling at S. and you told me that sometimes our instinct kick in and that yelling isn’t the worst thing to do necessarily.
    Thank you for that, because I know you were trying to make me feel better.

    But, I don’t think I belive in instincts. At least not instincts we can follow on an eveyday level. I think if my child were to run into traffic, I would yell and run, then probably scream at him. That’s an instinct, but it is done without thinking, and usually in more of a flight or fight situation. I think when we are trying to follow our instincts everyday, it is easy to fall back on something that FEELS like an instinct, but maybe it isn’t. It may be natural to yell at your kids if you grew up in a house where yelling was normal, but then that is a nurtured response, not instinct.

    So, when I yelled at S., it may have been what my mind was telling me to do, but I don’t think it serves a natural purpose, such as an instinct would indicate. I think in my case it shows that I have been taught to hold feeling and emotions in until they explode. So, I made a decision not to yell at him. It is taking everything I have to fight that urge sometimes, incuding leaving him for a few minutes while I cool down. But it is really important to me to not yell. I HATE being yelled at. It makes me feel small. I don’t want my kid to feel like that.

    So, maybe it isn’t that I don’t belive in instinct, but I think there is maybe a danger to using it as a cop-out, rather than thinking about what our parenting choices are saying. Maybe a couple thosand years ago, instinct would have worked, but we are so far removed from instinct now, that I don’t think we even know what it is anymore.

    And, I probably read a little too much into your blog post based on our conversation. Thanks for making me “think”.

    • amoment2think November 13, 2010 at 7:55 pm

      Wow Chelsea, there is some really really great stuff in this comment. I don’t even know where to start.

      Well, first off, I will start by covering my own butt. I know you know what I meant when I said that I didn’t thinking yelling was the worst thing necessarily, but just in case the inter-webs doesn’t, I will take a second to elaborate. I don’t think yelling is ever the ideal response. And I don’t think it is ever appropriate to yell insults or name call or anything like that. And I good part of why I said that was to try and make you feel better and I did internally question what I said after I said it. I said is also because I hate what guilt does to us as parents. You know, we are always guilty about everything, even when we are trying our absolute best.

      I think almost every parent out there has had the urge to yell “NO” or “STOP” at some point when they reach their breaking point. We do our best. We are human. We aren’t always perfect. I think a child growing up in a loving and nurturing home where his/her parents are trying their best to stay calm and not yell will suffer no harm from the occasional just can’t take it anymore “NO.”

      But after that conversation I did wonder why we would all (or many many of us) have the same urge to yell when we get to our breaking point. Why? What purpose does is serve in our psychological make up? Maybe you are right, maybe it is because most of us grew up in households where we were yelled at regularly.

      I love your point about what ‘feels’ like an instinct and I love how self-reflective you are…. I suspect many of us were taught to hold in all our feelings until the burst out.

      And I totally think using instinct can be a cop out and we need to really think about our choices. And we need to fight the urge to do what is easy and strive to do what is best.

      Anyway, thank you so much for this comment… it has me thinking about this all over again. šŸ™‚

  9. Briana November 14, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    This is a great post, Kathleen. I don’t really have much to add, just wanted to give you props for a very well thought-out piece.

  10. Lisa Sunbury November 14, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    I appreciate this thoughtful and thought provoking post, and the comments and discussion. In my chosen work, I provide support and guidance for families , both as a nanny of two small children, and as a parent educator. This is a conversation we often have in our parenting groups, and in the workshops I sometimes give for parents. I do believe there is natural instinct that most parents have (mothers especially) to love , protect, and respond to a baby’s cry. Beyond that, it’s all technique or learned behavior.
    What I mean by that is that every parent will respond to their child(ren) in a different ways in any given situation, at any given time, based on their own experiences, both as a child, and as an adult. The expression of the” instinct” to love and protect ends up looking and sounding different in each family.
    I think the reason there is such a proliferation of different advice available today, is because on some level parents want and need advice and guidance about how to parent in ways that “feel right” to them, while supporting the happy, healthy growth of their children.
    A lot of new parents start out just” not knowing” or only knowing that they don’t want to parent in the way their parents did. Then the baby comes, stuff happens, parents do their best to respond, and things either work out beautifully, or they don’t and parents are left wondering if there is a different way.
    It’s my belief that parenting is largely a learned skill, and all parents can benefit from a little information and support along the way. I offer parents one way to approach parenting, but I believe there is no one “right” or “best” way to parent, and it’s inevitable that mistakes will be made ( times when we yell, because we are frustrated or scared, and that’s what we learned growing up.)
    The good news is that children are resilient and forgiving, and our mistakes can be opportunities to grow as parents and as people, while strengthening our relationship with our children and teaching them about what it means to be human.
    For anyone who likes to read, I’d like to offer that I have recently been fascinated by Po Bronson’s book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. The authors of the book encourage parents to ignore common assumptions about children ( instincts) and take a look at what science has to say about ways to nurture children, a lot of it counterintuitive. It sounds dry, but it’s anything but!

  11. The Disgruntled Academic November 18, 2010 at 8:42 am

    This is such a great post. I know I’m pretty late to the party here, but I’m home sick and I’ve had a chance to catch up on my reading. Your posts so often lead to real-world conversations between me and Mr. Disgruntled. We spent the morning talking about the question of instincts and here’s what we came up with:

    – We live in an overwhelming consumer culture that tells us to buy things for our kids because we can’t provide enough for them. This leads us to think our instincts are inadequate.
    – Instincts imply a “natural” origin, “natural” is a social construct.

    So, being a giant nerd, I looked up “natural” in the dictionary. It means everything from “without technology” to “uncultivated.” I don’t know how we could be parents in this world without touching some aspect of technology, or human-made idea of parenthood.Ā 

    I thought about this a lot when I saw the movie “Babies.” Did you see it? The movie, as the title suggests, is about, um, babies. The film focuses on 4 babies from 4 different parts of the world, Namibia, Mongolia, United States, Japan. I enjoyed this movie. As a mom, I loved looking at how universal yet diverse motherhood can be. But as a nerd and media critic, I couldn’t help but trace a logic of atavism in this movie. What am i talking about? Atavism is the reversion to an ancestral mode of being. As if there was an instinct buried deep down, in some pure form, that we all have within us, we just need to drown out all of the clutter of modernity and technology and be the raw parents we all can be. The movie seemed to frame the Namibians as the most pure, natural parents and the Japanese parents as the most technologically advanced. This is troubling mainly because it isolates those we consider “primitive” or “natural” in the past, untouched by technology. And it also undermines the intelligence and logic of cultural production regardless of where people come from.

    So what’s my point? I think instinctive parenting is doing what we think is right, period. It’s not living off the grid, or eating organic carrots, or carrying our kids all day every day, it’s just doing what we think is best for our kids and ourselves. How do we define “best?” That’s just it, *we* define it. We can look to others to help us shape our definition of best, but in the end, all that matters is what we think.Ā Ā Ā 

    • amoment2think November 18, 2010 at 3:22 pm

      Oh my gosh I love this comment.

      I did want to see that movie babies but haven’t yet. I have heard mixed reviews. But finding out what parents do around the world fascinates me. As the point has been made by many others, our obsession over parenting methods and styles is kinda a product of our affluent westernized lives. Many in poor countries don’t have the luxury to debate if they should co-sleep or not. They just parent.

      And totally. We get to define ‘best’ and we get to do that for ourselves. I agree, that is all that matters.

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