Parental Instincts

I read more parenting books than most people do. I always have. I welcome hearing the perspectives of people who have professional experience with many families and have watched mindsets or techniques help them. This is not to say that I believe everything that I read, but that I appreciate that I might not know everything I need to know, or at least could benefit from, when it comes to parenting.

In fact, I’m not sure I subscribe to the advice of following my natural parenting instincts at all. I don’t know if I actually believe that we, as human beings, are endowed with precisely the knowledge we need to raise our children. We did not evolve as solitary animals that birthed offspring in isolation with the skills required to keep them safe written in our DNA. We are social animals that have evolved living in groups where older, wiser, more experienced members guided new parents through the trials of raising their children. No one expected group members to just know what to do or how to do it, they were taught the skills as they needed them, and through the efforts of many, children were raised.

Nowadays families do raise their children, more or less, in isolation. Most of us do not have a cadre of older, more experienced relatives around to teach us how to best tackle the many challenges of rearing children. And even if we do have them around they may be worried about imparting advice for fear of seeming overbearing or judgmental.

Raising children in this isolated setting, I’m not really sure how we expect to learn how to parent. Do we really have natural parental instincts that can lead the way? Aren’t our “parental instincts” just an amalgam of our own upbringing and the surrounding cultural expectations? Just because it was how you grew up, or how society deems kids should grow up, does that really make it the right, or best, way?

This is not to say I believe a certain kind of parenting should be prescribed, that we should set out to find some ideal way to raise kids and make everyone follow it. A child’s countenance, as well as her parents’, should and will greatly inform how she is raised. What works for one family may not work for another and will definitely fail for some. There are clearly many ways to raise successful, happy children. I’m just not sure we inherently know what those ways are.

It’s interesting to me that we require a period of extensive education for almost any great undertaking, and yet we can have children without ever learning a thing about what they require to thrive. I suppose we believe that since we were all children once we know how to raise our own. But that is like saying that for having once been a student one is prepared to teach. Except most people would have no idea how to best structure a classroom, let along how to productively impart information or effectively build skills. We require teachers be certified in order to teach and we require they deepen their understanding through continual professional development. Most of us even require our children’s caregivers have a certain level of education, say a Masters in Early Childhood Education, to watch our kids, and yet we don’t require anything similar from ourselves.

Reading Nurture Shock: A New Way to Think About Children was a real wake up call for me as a parent. Here was a scientifically sound book proving many of our collective parenting beliefs wrong. We have always thought that praising a child’s work would boost their self-esteem and drive them to challenge themselves to do better, but studies show the opposite is true. Praising a child’s work makes them dependent on external gratification and unable to judge its worth for themselves. Telling a child he’s good at math doesn’t give him confidence that he can perform more difficult tasks but instead makes him anxious to attempt them for fear that failing will revoke his status as talented at math.

Nurture Shock is full of surprising findings like these. Failing to point out and explain racial diversity leads children to be more aware of other people’s difference and to self-segregate in a diverse group of peers. Most of the strategies we rely on to encourage children to tell the truth just make them better liars. Every chapter of that book takes a well-worn parenting instinct and turns it on its head.

So no, I don’t necessarily trust my parenting instincts. I don’t believe I inherently know what is best for my particular children in this particular time in history (which is wholly unlike that of any previous generation). And honestly, I don’t think most parents do either. The increased levels of cognitive and emotional diagnoses, along with the alarming number of children being prescribed drugs to manage them, is just one indicator that we could be making more informed decisions for our children. It’s not that I believe the parents these children have done something wrong–I have every expectation my daughter will be diagnosed with something someday–but that the realities of our children’s lives are so different from our own that we can’t necessarily fall back on how we were raised to know how to do our best for them.

I really do believe that a lot of valuable information can be learned and applied by parents today. I also think parents should do a little research to better understand how children’s minds and bodies work and how their environment can affect them. No one knows a child better than his or her parents; with accurate information a parent is always best placed to determine what is best for their child. And sometimes parents need a little professional guidance to help them figure that out.

This past weekend I hit my daughter for the first time. We were standing on the shore of the lake when my son fell and smashed his face against a rock. I immediately tried to run to him but my daughter held me fast. As she pulled at my underwear and grabbed at my arm, I couldn’t couldn’t extract myself from her grasp. I yelled at her to let me go but her grip only tightened. My panicked need to reach my son, who was screaming not ten feet from me, reached a fevered pitch and I smacked my daughter on her thigh with an empty water bottle. In her surprise she let go and I was able to get to my crying son.

Of course my daughter was upset, but not nearly as upset as I was. I have never, in five years of being hit and kicked, ever retaliated with the same. In those moments after the incident, when I got down and explained that what I did was not okay–that it was NEVER okay to hit–and that I was so sorry, I couldn’t figure out why it had happened. Sure I was scared for my son and wanted to reach him, but what inside me made me lash out like that?

I had a long car ride home that day to think about it. Finally I realized that I lashed not in panic that my son was not okay, but in panic that I couldn’t get away, that my daughter was stronger than me, that she was the one in control. I was trying as hard as I could, and I just couldn’t get her off me. It was a physical manifestation of a fear I’ve been having for a long time, that as my daughter gets bigger and stronger, I will be less able to keep her safe when she is hurting me or herself.

Last night I dug up an email from a friend with the name and contact information of a psychologist who does Child Parent Interactive Therapy (CPIT) and reached out to her. She responded almost immediately and I’m set to do my intake interview over the phone this afternoon. My insurance won’t be accepted and I doubt they’ll reimburse me for any of the amount, but it’s clear I need to do something more than Kai.ser is able to provide. My parenting instincts, as well bolstered as they are by all I’ve read over the years, is no match for this challenge. I am admitting that what is best for my daughter and for myself is to seek professional help. I just hope that together, we can make this better.

What are your thoughts on “parental instincts”? Do you believe parents always inherently know what is best for their child?


  1. Our Babies Ourselves (by an anthropologist) is very good at talking about the intersection of instinct and culture. Some things are very instinctual (picking up a crying infant– unless you were neglected as an infant yourself). Some things are not (breast-feeding, though there are some parts that are instinctual right at first). Mostly though, its main message is that the kids are probably going to turn out just fine no matter how you raise them (so long as it’s not abusive). They may turn out differently than if you had parented differently, but that’s not a big deal. She illustrates this idea with information across different cultures and different time periods.

    Nurtureshock is actually pretty lite and is a bit outdated (there’s been more research on many of its topics, and the stuff about tv may no longer be true), very Malcolm Gladwell-esque. (A lot of the messed up things that the ultra crazy Californian sects do are based on reading and taking Nurtureshock and a couple of Malcolm Gladwell books to extreme points that the original research does not justify.)

    I’d encourage you to read the longer research on the chapters you’re interested in… most of them have their own books by the original authors. Mindset is particularly good, though recently I’ve been having my doubts about the message not to tell your kids they’re smart. We’ll have a post on that in a couple months. The central message to praise effort and to think of intelligence as a muscle is good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the lab experiments they did indicate that children should never be told they’re smart (and I say this as someone who has been following that advice for about 7 years now, but I think I won’t anymore based on a lot of introspection after an interaction I had with the parents of one of my students).

    If you really want a “how to” manual for childcare, I totally recommend SuperNanny. I know that some people in California think her advice is dangerous (OMG, timeouts), but it’s not. It’s just normal middle class advice that works with most kids. No guilt, just tactics. (Tactics, btw, need to be taught. But instinct will tell you if you’re actually harming your kid with them. You’re not.)

    1. I actually think Super Nanny gives good, solid advice. However, I can see how it might freak out some natural parenting types in California (well, in Los Angeles and San Francisco).

  2. I’m glad you dug up the email and are getting the help you need.

    I haven’t read many parenting books — at least, not since the twins were infants. I read a sleep book and I read Happiest Baby on the Block. But I think you do hit on a huge point: I am not raising my kids in isolation. And I think it may be a cultural difference.

  3. I’m with you–I don’t think a lot of it is natural or instinctive. And I agree that we should try to be informed and read etc.; unfortunately my husband is not much of a reader so it falls on me, then we disagree and I’m always saying “but this book said…”. Anyhow, I definitely marveled when my first was born that wow, anyone can be trusted with a precious baby with no training or education whatsoever.

    While we nsy have turned out okay, that doesn’t mean our parents did everything right or that the wrong stuff they did didn’t affect us. My husband and I both experienced done less than great parenting and in some respects we are a little vigilant in not repeating the past. But then sometimes I think I can detect my husband’s parents’ parenting coming out a little…

  4. Glad you are contacting help. Because your daughter is super tough at this time.
    Telling her hitting is wrong was good. Children need to know their parents err sometimes too. Did you at the same time tell her that she shouldn’t/mustn’t prevent you from going to your hurt other child when she was not hurt herself? Because both are true. She needs to learn both because her life is going to be full of such choices. It does sound like she panicked but why was she triggered?
    You make very good points about parenting in isolation and the impact of our cultural changes so people in their 20’s/30’s often have been isolated from child/infants for the vast majority of their lives. That makes it harder to parent as does our reality of dual income families which also isolates those women who are SAHM. No perfect answers on that score.
    I hope you will share what you learn from the CPIT expert.
    I learn a lot from you, and other bloggers, and it makes me a better person.I am still learning and seeing how much more there is to be learned. Parenting is only becoming more difficult in today’s world.

  5. I don’t necessarily think my instincts are always right, but the again I’m not sure there really is a “right” when it comes to parenting. Kids aren’t robots who predictably respond to inputs. But, for the most part, when I follow my instincts, I’m acting most authentically — it’s hard for me to play a role that doesn’t come naturally.

    I think you are right in that instincts are very much a product of our own childhoods and cultural expectations. They aren’t based on some primal knowledge.

    I’m glad you reached out for some help. This sounds really hard. I think you are already a step ahead of many others who face similar struggles because of your willingness to learn more about yourself.

  6. This comment kind of goes along with what you wrote about yesterday. I love the ideas of the natural parenting community. In several aspects, I feel like I really relate and am a natural parent. We don’t do CIO (did with my 1st son, not 2nd), I still breastfeed on demand at 21 months, co sleep when necessary, baby wear, etc. I would love to be the calm mom who handles discipline with explanations instead of consequences, has an endless of supply of patience, repeats what I feel like Aiden is frustrated at during tantrums. However, we too have tried those things repeatedly, and they just don’t seem to be something that works for Aiden. Usually, he does get a time out, then we either stay in the room with him or give him a few minutes break and then discuss his behaviors and feelings.
    All that being said, there is certainly no magic answer to parenting kids. I don’t think there is just one main way to parent your child perfectly. What all parenting books fail to mention (or maybe they just don’t talk about it) is that even their methods fail from time to time too. Children don’t fit into molds, and neither do their feelings or behaviors. We can’t predict how they will react and we have no way of knowing for sure that EVERY TIME they are mad that they are eating pb&j’s and screaming, that reflecting their feelings and thoughts to them, acknowledging their sadness will calm them down. Kids sometimes just need to throw fits and then know that we are there in the end for them. It isn’t always pretty and there certainly isn’t a perfect way to get them to react every time.
    I think it’s interesting that your daughter only hits you and not friends, teachers, etc. I wonder if it’s because she knows you are her safe place perhaps? Bear with me, but when she feels out of control, she knows regardless of what she does, she can take her feelings out on you. You will always love her and accept her back. I don’t know how to break her of the hitting, but I think getting outside help with it is a great step. I too would worry about that as she gets older, and the last thing you want is for your son to see the behavior too and try it out, or for her to hit you and leave bruises and more.
    I really admire your drive to be the best parent you can by researching and reading. I too read a ton of pregnancy, childbirth, websites, parenting stuff and I am slowly accepting that there isn’t just one right way. Picking and choosing things that work best for me and my boys has seemed to be the best way for us so far.

  7. I had mcRuger read this post and we discussed it this morning as he got ready for work. So, thank you for posting this so we could have another productive parenting conversation. Both of us trust our parenting instincts. I’ve read quite a few parenting books, and have been disappointed with most of them. And, to that end, McRuger has only read two…both back when Cadet was tiny…and at my urging. I find that most parenting books employ the “ONE WAY” philosophy to raising children, which I don’t agree with.

    I’m curious as to why you felt you had to apologize to your daughter for hitting her. Sure, it is important to reinforce that hitting is wrong…at the same time she was physically preventing you from helping your son. What she did was intentional…what you did wasn’t. Anyway, I was curious about that.

    1. This is a hood question. I have apologized to my son many times, and I think it’s a good thing to do. But there are times when I’ve gotten mad at him for a valid reason, and I feel like he’s waiting for me to apologize. So I try to teach him that I’m not *always* wrong when I get mad. In this case, I get why you wanted to apologize to your daughter (and I’m no fan of hitting), but I think I would’ve focused the conversation more on why what she did was unsafe.

      It’s so hard, though. You’re being so thoughtful about parenting, and that’s a great thing.

  8. I haven’t read a ton of parenting books so far- just The Happiest Baby on the Block which was super repetitive. I do have a book on toddlers that my mom read and gave to me that I need to start pretty soon. I think that I am going to need to learn some techniques for tantrums fairly soon.

    I don’t think that parenting is all instincts so reading books and/or asking others for advice is important. I belong to a mommy group on FB and people often ask about behavioral issues. Of course you are going to get a wide range of answers but one could possibly be helpful- you never know!

    As to Rain’s comment I think that it was imperative that you apologized to your daughter. Especially if you want your daughter to stop hitting you- it would be hypocritical to tell her that she couldn’t do it while you hit her.

  9. I feel like you are following your instincts to reach out for help and that should hold value.
    I have the extreme privilege to have worked with an agency who’s very business was to raise children. The couple that began it had been doing it for 40 years. I was attacked regularly, I was never allowed to hit back, and I was expected to provide for the children what a family, people who love them unconditionally, should regardless of the inappropriate choices they made. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.
    I also nannied at that same time for a family that disciplined with a swat on the butt. It’s good to realize and embrace your personal boundaries and hopes before actually having kids.
    I loved that we were all, the parents, the directors, the managers, the children, learning, growing, and trying new things with each day. What worked for A sure as hell didn’t work for B, and that went for the adults and children.
    It definitely shaped the parent I am today, and thank goodness for that, because I certainly didn’t grow up with the best role models.

  10. I am glad you are getting help with your daughter. I think targeted advice specific to her temperament and yours can only be a good thing. I have read a handful of parenting books and I still use a few methods from Happiest Toddler, The Connected Child, and 1-2-3 Magic (especially the latter). Most books and advice sites I find don’t work for us. Especially the natural parenting. I’m sure it’s some flaw on my part but when my child gets enraged, I cannot always react with loving patience because she ups the ante until I can’t take it, intentionally switching tactics to produce the most physically painful result to me that she can muster. If I were a better person, perhaps it wouldn’t make me see red to be bitch-slapped and scratched and bitten… but eventually it does every time.

  11. I can’t tell you how much I so completely agree with this post. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot since my kids were babies, but you said it so much more clearly – I’m suspicious of some of my instincts, and I do feel that our society is by and large very fragmented and motherhood of young children all too often carried out in too much isolation. I still feel at sea most of the time with parenting. I have an appointment with a family psychologist on Monday to talk about some of these things.

    1. I have noticed that when I “trust my instincts” about parenting, I emulate my parents most closely and usually I want to avoid this as much as possible. Just because it’s what I learned it isn’t how I want to parent. So I agree totally that with no role model peers to see the gamut of options, I feel lost.

  12. I just read through the comments here and thought what Ms. Future PharmD said was super interesting. I absolutely love how I was raised (love and respect are paramount, no hitting, I literally never heard my parents raise their voices, we talked through times when we disappointed them and came up with game plans about how to not disappoint them in the future, etc)… so yeah, I’m not a parenting philosophy book reader by any means (I’ve read a couple like Nuture Shock and The Happiest Baby on the Block), and I don’t read any really anymore…but maybe that’s because “trusting my gut” means parenting like my parents did and I’m okay with that because I think I had a pretty fantastic upbringing. My son is hitting lately, but so far it’s not been too huge of a deal because he’s little and we’re working on “gentle hands” and it seems to be helping. It’s a whole ‘nuther ballgame at your daughter’s age though because she is getting so strong and I’m sure that’s frightening. I don’t judge you at all for reacting as you did when you were frantic to get to your son. Parenting is tough. I’m glad you’re reaching out for help!

  13. I’m just catching up and I want to say… Bravo for making it 5 years. Seriously. I grew up in a spanking/slapping family and aboard it for a long time until M would refuse to get off of B. I’ve never spanked him hard, but yep, I’ve swatted his butt several times because it makes him stop so we can regroup. Nothing else makes him stop and pause. But, after a long chat with my family this weekend, I’m trying to stop even the swats. They all regret it themselves, and I don’t want to have the same regrets.

    My kids both hit me. M had almost stopped completely but certainly still has his moments but B hits and bites. It’s awesome.

    1. Thanks C. I honestly haven’t come all that close before, but I have done some squeezing (hard) of arms when she won’t stop hitting and I need to keep us both safe. I could say the squeezing was to keep her under control but really it was out of frustration and anger.

      My son is starting to hit and bite now too and it makes me angry at his sister because I think he’s learning it from her, even though I know he would be doing it anyway, just like she did without seeing it modeled. There is resentment starting to take root and that is one of the reasons I’m getting help. I really need some help.

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