LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

Thursday, September 27, 2012

What feels right can be so wrong

My friends Dave and Samantha have just had their first baby. Do you remember what that was like- that first few months where you really had no parenting experience to fall back on, where everything was new?

"How's Sam going?" I asked when I saw Dave recently. Sam had looked pretty confident when I last saw her, but maybe things were less serene behind the scenes; her family is far away, so she's been a bit short of support.

Animals have incredible parenting
instincts. Can we rely on instinct
in our parenting too?
"I reckon she's going really well," replied Dave. "She does a lot of reading on the net trying to work out the best way to do things, but it's all pretty contradictory. You've got all these experts, and none of them agree with each other. I told her to forget all that and just go with her instincts."

Dave had a point. There's just SO much information out there that it's very hard for a new mum looking for advice to make sense of it all. How can you tell what's an informed point of view, versus  the ramblings of some self-appointed guru with an opinion and an agenda? It's easy to conclude that you can only go with what feels right to you.

I wish it was that simple. But the complex truth is that in some cases, what feels right to you isn't necessarily the best thing for your children.

That's because what feels right is so dependent on our personal experiences. There's a danger that we'll either copy our parents' model of parenthood exactly, regardless of how ineffective some of their parenting was, or reject their methods so completely that we fall over backwards and make the opposite mistake.

I did a lot of copying as a new mother. I considered I'd been parented very well. I lived to regret some of the things I copied!

Wash up? Huh? I have to practise
the piano!
If I'd been a little more reflective, I'd have encouraged my son to take more responsibility for the household chores. Instead I reproduced my parents' priorities, where children were expected to do their schoolwork and music practice and nothing much else.

Result: I had to learn to deal with regular chores the hard way- and a generation later, so did my son. Not ideal. (Think 'depressing chaos' followed by 'overwhelming workload'.)

Human families are a little more
complex than animal families!
And meanwhile my best friend, who had had some very difficult experiences with her own mother, was occasionally falling over backwards and wondering why her child wasn't moving forwards. Given so few chances to express preference herself as a child, she flooded her toddler with food choices and wondered why he wouldn't eat. Oops!

Those are minor glitches, but some 'instincts' can lead us to dangerous places. Take spanking. (Please, take it- as far away as possible.)

Let's look at three different 'feels right' scenarios. NB: not everyone will fit neatly into one of these pigeonholes- they are just scenarios- but let's just see if we can look at what 'feels right' from some different perspectives.

1. Smacking is normal

If you were smacked as a child pretty much whenever you did the wrong thing, you will very likely feel that spanking is a normal method of disciplining your own child.

You'll call on that experience of how to parent, as modelled by your own parents; you'll defend that method, and you'll copy it with your own kids- probably without doing a whole lot of deep thinking about how or why (or even if) it worked. It will feel right and comfortable to you, in a deep place that you might well mistake for 'instinct'.

Turkey mums will instinctively
peck at chicks that aren't their own,
sometimes killing or maiming them.
Still happy to rely on instinct?
If you're paying attention, you might eventually realise that you're having a few problems with discipline by the time your child reaches adolescence. Are you needing to escalate that smacking into something more violent? Are your kids being increasingly secretive? Do they tell you the truth? Is sharing emotions with your children a thing of the past?

Does that feel right? Is that how your relationship with your parents evolved, too?

Does that make you sad?

If so, feels right has failed you.

2. Discipline is cruelty

Maybe you weren't 'spanked' as a child. Maybe instead you had the bones thrashed out of you for tiny misdemeanours, maybe even when you hadn't done anything wrong at all. Maybe you still bear the emotional scars, and have been in therapy because of your parents' violence towards you.

You'll have a different feels right from the parent number 1. You'll probably call on your personal experience of how not to parent, as modelled by your own parents, and run very fast in the opposite direction- maybe to a place where your own children have no boundaries at all. Boundaries bring back memories of violence.

And at some point, you may realise that having no discipline imposed hasn't magically made your children feel more loved. They're out of control, and you don't know what to do.

Feels right has failed you. The gut feeling has led you astray.

3. Smacking means I lost control

Maybe you came from a family where spanking was used so rarely that you can actually remember the two or three occasions when it happened. The rest of the time, you had things explained to you, or you suffered the natural consequences of your misbehaviour.

To you, boundaries without violence will feel right. You'll find it reasonably easy not to smack, and you'll find other ways to give those boundaries. You'll be shocked by other parents who smack regularly without seeming to think about it. You may judge them harshly.

If you lose your way once or twice and smack your child in the heat of the moment, you'll think back to the few times your parents smacked you and be able to forgive them- because now you understand how tough peaceful parenting can be. You'll feel bad for failing. You'll be able to apologise to your child for that, without approving the behaviour you wanted to correct.

This alpaca instinctively stood still
and waited for her wobbly baby to latch on.
That baby's just lucky that mum's
instincts were good- mum inherited them
from the baby's grandmother.
You'll probably end up with a mutually respectful relationship with your teenager. Feels right has done you proud- but not because of any intrinsic value of 'following your instincts'. You're still just reproducing and reacting to your own positive experience.

You were just lucky.

*    *    *    *    *    *

So, you see, it's not enough just to be guided by the magic we call 'instinct'. Sometimes instinct is actually what feels familiar, or what kicks you in the guts with bad memories.

You do have to read and discuss issues with other parents, because that takes you outside your own experience and makes you think.

You have to analyse as well; you have to think hard thoughts about your own experience of being parented and learn from what's happened to you, not just reproduce what feels right. Taking an honest look at your own 'triggers' is a wonderful investment in your children's welfare.

Take some time to think about it.

What parenting behaviours have you simply reproduced without thinking? 

How did that parenting impact on you, when you were on the receiving end? 

How did you feel about it? 

What were the long-term effects?

Should you perhaps replace some of your 'instincts' with a more reflective approach to parenting?


  1. Such a thoughtful post - thank you. I'm a teacher and not (yet) a parent, and I think that some parenting-like behaviors that we have learned from our parents carry over into the classroom. I've caught myself many times "sounding like my mother" and solving problems like she tried to - with a raised voice and obvious impatience. I was a bit scared of this version of myself, and she was incredibly unproductive to boot!

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts - I always enjoy your posts!

    1. Thanks Allie. Yes, much of what I say can apply just as much to a teacher's classroom behaviour- we can teach the way we were taught, or discipline the way we were disciplined. And that's not always the best choice!

  2. I think as parents and teachers its great if we can find the time to step back and think about what we are doing, what things we are trying to value and pass on to children, Thanks for this lovely , useful post.

  3. Post is very informative. I will review it again.
    fostering allowance


PLEASE leave your comments here so all readers can see them- thank you!