When It Comes To Parenting, Do Not Follow Your Guts

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.