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Parenting instinct; does such a thing exist?

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Where do you sit on the issue of instinct? Do you believe parents, be they mothers or fathers, automatically know what is right or wrong for their child simply because it feels correct?

parenting, instinct, mother's instinct, father's instinct, mother's intuition, father's intuition
Do you believe parenting is largely learned or instinct? I believe it is almost entirely learned.

I struggle with the idea that mums and dads have a natural instinct when it comes to raising kids. I think parenting is mostly learned, much through trial and error. What isn’t learned is, largely, common sense.

If instinct is ever to play a part, it must surely be in the earliest days of a child’s life. If I think back to my own experiences, I could tell when my daughters were tired or needed a nappy changing and so on. There were physical signs to follow and my wife and I dealt with our offspring’s needs. Yes, some of those signs were incredibly subtle and could be missed if you weren’t constantly looking out for them, but it wasn’t instinct.

In the case of our eldest daughter, she barely fed as a newborn. Although she gave the impression of going to the nipple and feeding, she wasn’t drawing any milk. She cried lots during the day but she was a newborn. That’s what they do, right? Mrs Adams and I didn’t realise there was a problem.

Although we were surrounded by older family members, no one picked up on the fact there might be an issue for an entire week. It was a health visitor who did some tests, informed us she wasn’t feeding properly and told us what to do about it. Following her advice, Helen began feeding almost immediately.

There was no instinct there. We learned from an expert with much more experience of dealing with infants of that age.

That same child is now seven years old and at school. Instinct wasn’t very useful in telling me how to prepare her for SATS tests or what to do when she complained that older kids were playing roughly with her in the playground. These everyday parenting issues required calm, considered thought; not actions taken on a gut feeling.

If you do a Google search for parents’ instinct, you get one or two results but several pages of results on the subject of mother’s intuition. Intuition is an entirely different thing and claiming there is such a thing as mother’s intuition is a guaranteed way of giving a stay at home father such as myself blood pressure issues. That, however, is a blog post for another day (although you may find this blog post I wrote about the State of the World’s Father’s Report by the MenCare organisation of interest).

Talk of instinct or intuition can be unhelpful at worst and dangerous at worst. We all know of mums and dads who sometimes struggle as parents. Giving them the idea they should have an instinct to guide them through life as a parent does nothing to help their self-esteem or ease any anxiety they may experience when things go wrong. If such individuals require help, they should be encouraged to seek it, not rely on an instinct they may not have.

There’s an African proverb, thought by some to be Nigerian in origin. You’re probably familiar with it, but it goes like this;

It takes a whole village to raise a child.

I believe this to be very true. It’s not just my wife and I, but my kids’ uncles and aunts, family friends, grandparents, school teachers, childcare practitioners and so on. This approach further undermines the idea of instinct. It’s lots of different people sharing a huge variety of experiences and knowledge that helps raise our children. The one thing it isn’t is instinct.

What do you think about a mother or father’s instinct? Do you really believe it exists? Do you think parenting is learned or were you pre-programmed and knew exactly what to do with your kids? Please leave a comment below detailing your thoughts.

12 thoughts on “Parenting instinct; does such a thing exist?”

  1. Nigel higgins

    Fairly sure this will divide opinion my view is I believe in parenting instinct just my view but I would agree a lot is learned as you go along and common sense is a factor but as I said I think instinct plays a part fab post mate.

    1. Thank you Nigel, I kind of thought it might divide opinion but that’s just what I do!!! You are speaking as a man with considerably more parenting experience than I have. Maybe there is a role for instinct, although I like the comment made by Ian that being a calm, unflappable, well organised parent may give the impression you have everything under control. I know my mother remarked that my wife wasn’t particularly stressed when she became a mother and that our daughter would benefit from this. I think she was right. As ever, thanks for commenting Nigel.

  2. David Shaul - DadvWorld

    Very interesting read John. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure which way I lean on this one. I think maybe instinct could be confused with bond. I certainly believe I have a unique bond with my son, does that mean I instinctively know what to do and what he needs, or does it simply mean I have a perfect mix of love and attention to detail thus giving myself the best chance to guess correctly the majority of the time what’s best for the apple of my eye…..

    1. I like this observation a lot. I think it is easy to get bond and instinct confused. I know I have a great bond with my kids, but I wouldn’t claim I instinctively know what is correct for them. That requires thought and effort. It is interesting because I could give you lots of examples where child two has benefited from what I’ve learned from raising her older sister. Likewise, both kids have such different characters they can’t both be treated the same way. I had to learn this, it wasn’t instinct!

  3. I think like anything people take to parenting in different ways. Some people find it’s more natural and more automatic, others it takes more work. It will also depend on the child.

    Lots of mums talk about being broody and loving babies. I was never broody and am not a baby fan. I was a little worried as to how I’d cope (my mum was the same in not being the maternal type but she did a great job of bringing us up). Lots of my friends told us stories of them being petrified on the first day they took their baby home. But I didn’t feel that. I just knew what to do for the best. But I am quite pragmatic about life and logic so maybe I was translating those skills to caring for a newborn. Until he started potty training and then school, N was really easy, it’s only now he’s older and I’ve go more worry about how he’s doing and what I can or should be doing to help him where he’s struggling. I think as children grow older there’s a lot more to worry about and learned parenting comes in more.

    1. Na ha, yes, the whole maternal / paternal thing. My wife wasn’t at all paternal, still isn’t in the stereotypical ‘chair of the PTA / everyone come to my house for coffee’ kind of way. Nonetheless she is great with the kids.

      I would argue you were simply transferring those skills to caring for a newborn. Then again, as I think you’ve probably gathered, I just don’t believe in a parenting instinct. Ian’s comment about being organised and unflappable will give the world the world the impression you are a natural. David’s comment about a bond and instinct getting confused is also great food for thought.

  4. I’m with you, at least in that instinct, at its correct definition, is only a small part of any decision making process. Which, ultimately, is what parenting is. A series of decisions and problem solving.

    I’d say if you’re a good improviser, well organised and unflapable, you’ll appear a competent parent – a natural – to others. I’ve lost count of the amount of compliments I’ve got for my parenting, where at precisely the same time I’ve been thinking, phew got away with that one.

    Parenting instinct exists in the same way Santa Claus does. If you want to believe, you will.

    1. Great comment Ian. Likewise, I’ve had a few compliments that have left me thinking; “Really??? You should have seen how I got to that position!” Perhaps way back in the day when life was less complicated, instinct had a role to play (note I say perhaps, I still need to be convinced). In the modern world where kids learn phonics, have school plays, have school photographs taken, need to be warned about sexting….all a bit too much for instinct I think. Thanks for commenting Ian, big fan of your blog!

  5. I have to say I would usually say there is some amount of “instinct” involved in my parenting but if I thought about it more deeply, it probably does come down to some element of learning. I grew up in a large family and have lots of nephews and nieces with new babies coming along pretty much each year throughout my childhood and so I got very used to handling small babies and helping look after them. Plus I then trained as a midwife before having my own children. My “parental intuition” when it came to looking after my own children is almost certainly an ingrained response to all those years of experience with small children rather than just being something that came with parenthood. I’d say my husband doesn’t have the same level of “instinct” that I do – but growing up as an only child in a very small family with no previous experience of small children, that seems hardly surprising.

    1. Now that is an interesting comparison. I didn’t grow up in a big family, but with two brothers who are a decade younger than me. I therefore got to see a lot of early-years parenting before becoming a parent myself. Did this prepare me for becoming a parent? Yes, I think it probably helped.

  6. I think we have a natural instinct to protect unless we are taught to ignore it and I think some people are natural nurturers in the same way that some people are naturally good at maths of course this presumes that all children need or want to be parented the same which I don’t believe is the case. I did not have what I would call parenting instinct when my son was born and it shocked me and made me feel ashamed. I still don’t know that I have it but I reckon I’ve got my parenting proficiency which is just as satisfying

    1. Can you aim for anything else but parenting proficiency? More to the point, should you? The fact you said you felt ashamed kind of my proves my point. There may be an instinct to protect but that doesn’t teach you how to do the rest of this parenting thing.

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