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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?

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