The Parenting Instinct – Fact or Fiction?

Sometime back I wrote about the practicalities of being a text-book Mum because I was annoyed by certain criticisms that I paid too much attention to what I read.  My belief has always been that if you don’t have the answers, look for them.  In my case, I chose to look for them in books because I didn’t fancy the alternatives – listening to hearsay or following my instincts.

In my previous post on the topic I confessed that I never really had any parental instincts.  I’ve always assumed that it was something some people naturally have and others didn’t.  However, the more I ponder over the definition of the word “instinct”, the less convinced I am that parental instincts come naturally.

What is an “instinct”?

“Instinct is the inborn behavior of a living organism that is not learned.”

I do believe that there is a general instinct to want to nurture and protect our children.  Though, clearly, not everyone is born with this instinct otherwise we wouldn’t have the problem of abandoned babies in rubbish dumps, public toilets, or whatever other dreadful venues babies have been known to be abandoned in.

I digress…  I feel that for most of us, this is about as far as the parental instinct goes.  Everything else beyond that is a learned response.  As first time parents, most of us don’t know what our babies are crying for.  It is only through experience and a steep learning curve that we slowly begin to anticipate the meaning behind each cry.

I won’t go so far as to say that the parental instinct does not exist, for I am sure there are some parents who do instinctively know what it is that their babies require without the benefit of prior experience or knowledge.  It would be akin to those individuals who are naturally gifted with certain activities – be it a sport, with numbers, music, etc.  As it is with such talented individuals, gifted parents are few and far between.  The rest of the parent population learns through experience, the sharing of knowledge and through what we read and hear through various media.

If you were born with parental instincts, you would know from the first day that your baby is born exactly what your baby required and when.  The moment your baby cried, you would instinctively know whether it was a cry to be fed, to have a diaper changed, or to be cuddled.  Most parents do eventually learn what their babies are crying for, but it comes through experience, and trial and error.  It might be the experience of remembering that a certain cry meant hunger, or that a certain look from their babies that meant a poop has been made. Whatever it is, these are all learned reactions, not instincts.

Therefore to tell a mother to follow her instincts is at odds with what I understand to be an instinct.  It would make more sense to tell her to follow what she feels is right.  Her decision on what feels right might appear to be based on a gut feeling, but in reality, it is really based on her subconscious conclusions made based on her past experiences with her child, her other children (if she has any), what she has heard, and what she has read.  Just because the conclusion hasn’t been made consciously doesn’t mean it is an instinct.

To help us make these subconscious decisions and come up with what is hopefully the best solution for our individual child, as parents we need to be open and receptive to any information that is presented to us.  It might be through our own experiences, through the experiences of other parents, through a book, whatever.  We don’t necessarily have to accept it and adopt it, however, having the knowledge of it does influence our decisions in some way.

It is said that you can’t learn how to be a parent from books and that parents need to trust their own instincts to do what is right. Indeed, you cannot depend solely on books, but you can get ideas. Ideas which stay with you even as you parent your child. The same ideas that infiltrate the actions and decisions that you eventually make even as your own past experiences with your child affects your future behaviours and choices. To say that what you have read has not helped you in any way would be false – even if you choose to act against what you have read.

When you follow an instinct, you are making a decision based on a feeling that has no other basis apart from the fact that it feels right. An instinct is not assisted by knowledge from past experiences, or knowledge gleaned from written or verbal sources. Parenting instincts are not about making mistakes and learning from them as you continue along your parenting journey. Most parents are not born with parenting instincts, but most of us do eventually learn how to parent our children effectively without it. We simply utilise what we have learned, whether it is through parenting books, past experiences, or shared knowledge from other parents.

You don’t have to have natural, inborn, parental instincts to be a good parent.  You just have to be willing to learn and accept the fact that parenting is a journey where you’re going to wander down the wrong path quite a lot of the time.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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