When It Comes To Parenting, Do Not Follow Your Guts

December 13, 2013  |  parenting

As a parent I spend a fair amount of time in various parenting forums and discussion groups, either seeking advice or offering my own. Too often, however, in response to parenting questions, I hear other parents offering the clichéd advice: “follow your gut,” or “just do what feels right.”

But what if you feel like hitting your child, because you are particularly annoyed about something they did? What if your “guts” tell you to put your kid in time-out? Or call them names when they’ve done something you think is stupid? Or worse? Is it okay to follow your guts then?

The obvious answer is: no. And before you claim, “well, my guts would never tell me to do anything so dumb!”, think long and hard about that. I pride myself on being extremely deliberate about my parenting — quite the opposite of following my “guts” — yet I certainly have my moments when I am tired or otherwise tested and have an urge to yell at my son when he is not being cooperative at the exact time when it’s most inconvenient for him not to cooperate.

Every parent has these moments of wanting to react in a way we know isn’t right. We may even find ourselves doing some of these things even though we know we shouldn’t — and then our guts tell us afterwards that we regret doing so. So how could it be that our guts might tell us to do one thing in one moment, then in another moment tell us that that’s exactly what we shouldn’t have done? What are we supposed to make of our guts then?

There may be times when it is appropriate to act on your emotions or just do what feels right. But parenting is not one of these times — parenting is not choosing an ice cream flavor or deciding which movie to see at the theater tonight. Guiding a child to adulthood requires research, knowledge, goal setting, and long term planning. This is something that will forever impact the life of a  human being, and we ought to make damn sure we are doing the right thing and that we know — not just “feel” — that the actions we are taking will give the results we intended.

This is a complex task. Just like any other complex problem, it is not well solved by someone’s guts. Is a skyscraper built by  a group of steel workers based on their guts of where they think the rivets should go? Would you trust a structural engineer who says he “just feels” the bridge is safe, but offers no proof? Did man set foot on the moon by merely following his guts?

Obviously these difficult projects take enormous amount of knowledge, time, and long-range planning. There are principles that must be identified and understood, and knowledge to be acquired, and planning to be done — long before such projects are even started.

When it comes to raising a human being, shouldn’t we approach this task with as much tenacity and purpose as any other long range project?

I understand that, as parents, we don’t always have time to do the kind of research or thinking we would like — and yet in many situation we do not have the luxury of time and we must still act. For very important things, we must make the time to do what is required (e.g., choosing how we should educate our children, or deciding on life-altering medical procedures such as circumcision). For less important or urgent issues, we must act on the knowledge we have. And only for issues where it does not make a material difference what choice we make should we be allowed to follow our “guts.” But even this, still, requires us to *think* about the situation and identify the choices available as materially equal and thus eligible as a decision capable of being made by our guts.

So the next time you’re not sure what the right thing to do is, instead of checking with your guts, check in with your mind instead. Think about the issue. Study the implications of the decisions you might make. Ask questions and seek advice from experts or friends you trust. Gather knowledge. Then you can come to a decision that you can have complete confidence in. I guarantee that you won’t regret it.

P.S. — If you are someone giving advise, don’t patronize the other person by suggesting they follow their guts. They’ve come to you for knowledge to help them think about the issue, and advising they follow their guts is essentially telling them to turn off their brain and act on whim instead. And for you, it is an admission that you have no knowledge to offer. Just be honest instead and say that you don’t know.

  • Amy

    I enjoyed reading this article, thank you.
    I was having a conversation with my father last week about an article I showed him (from memory it was regarding the book The Whole Brain Child).

    While he liked the article and some things that were being suggested, he made the comment ‘but I don’t think you can go too wrong by just parenting by instinct- I can see that’s what you do and it looks like it works beautifully for you’.

    I objected to this as it simply isn’t true. If I parented by instinct, I would be making decisions based on what was modeled to me, for that is what has helped form my natural instinct.

    My parents parented the best way they knew how- the way they were shown. I am actively trying to parent a completely different way.

    Going against my instincts takes time and patience (with myself). It is a daily challenge filled with self talk and reflection. I know that if I am particularly flustered I need to take more time as it is in these moments that I am more at risk of parenting by instinct.

    Thanks again.

  • Amanda


    Thank you for writing this. I am not a perfect parent (who is?) but I’m often told that I take parenting too seriously, that I need to just relax and “follow my gut.” I can’t imagine not taking parenting seriously. It’s the most important job I will ever have.


  • Sarah

    I agree with a lot of what you have said in this article. However, I think the key is not to ‘not follow your guts’ but instead to recognise what is a true gut feeling and what is just a learned response to a particular situation. I do think that a lot of what we think of as a gut instinct is just a behaviour that we’ve been conditioned to believe in or that we’ve experienced from our own parents. I often have the instinct to smack my daughter but it’s probably because I was smacked myself as a child. When I listen to my rational thought I know that it’s not the right thing to do so I don’t act on that particular ‘instinct.’ I do believe though that we do have a true instinct when it comes to parenting and that we can use that to inform our decisions. Before giving birth I read a lot about co-sleeping but weighing up all the facts I decided it wasn’t the right thing to do. When my daughter was born I tried to follow what I’d decided but I couldn’t. I felt such a strong pull to keep her close to me at night. Even though my ‘instinct’ told me not to, friends and family told me not to, doctors told me not, I felt such a strong almost physical pull towards co-sleeping that I couldn’t ignore it. My whole body ached for her when she was lying sleeping alone in her crib. It’s hard to explain but I believe this was pure raw instinct. Of course I still did my research on how to co-sleep safely and now from all accounts I believe it was the right thing to do. So overall I think, yes research everything, read everything, listen to advice from others but don’t ignore that true gut feeling completely.