mother's intuition

Wouldn’t it be nice if we automatically knew the best way to raise our children? Are some women equipped with instinctive responses that help them be good parents? If you feel like you don’t have mother’s intuition, is there anything you can do to develop it?

The terms “maternal instinct” and “mother’s intuition” are often used interchangeably, but I think it’s important to distinguish between them.

“Maternal instinct” implies a biologically based, in-born knowledge that tells us how to parent. I don't know of any evidence of this in humans. Human relationships are so complex and so varied across different cultures and different individuals, I can't even imagine what a universal human maternal instinct would look like. You don't parent exactly the same way your neighbor (or even your sister!) does, and if you have more than one child, there are probably subtle and not-so-subtle differences in how you respond to each of them, because they're different people.

On the other hand, intuition, which involves fast, holistic affect-laden judgments (“gut feelings”) that happen without conscious or deliberate weighing of facts, has been well documented by research. Julie Gore and Eugene Sadler-Smith, at the University of Surrey, UK, describe four primary types of intuition: Problem-solving intuitions, social intuitions, moral intuitions, and creative intuitions. Let’s see how these might be relevant to parenting.

1) Problem-solving intuition:

You are the expert on your child. No one knows your child better than you do, and the expertise that you've gained from spending lots and lots of time with your child can translate into "gut feelings" about how to respond in certain situations. Research involving fire fighters, neonatal nurses, and missile battery commanders shows that these experts learn to size up a situation quickly and know intuitively how to respond in crisis situations. For parents, problem-solving intuition is the coalescing of all of our experiences with our children--what has or hasn’t worked in the past, how we imagine they’d respond, familiar patterns of interacting—into an automatic sense of “knowing what to do.” Someone who knows your child less well than you do, wouldn’t have this intuition.

2) Social intuition:

Based on our past experiences and relationships, we can become good at "reading" people. When we interact with others, we unconsciously perceive their verbal and nonverbal cues, colored by our own current or past experiences, and bundle all of this into an impression of what they are thinking or how they are feeling. As parents, we do this all the time. Children don't generally announce things like "You know mom, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by what's going on at nursery school. I like the toys, but it's hard for me to rein in my desire to grab everything for myself. Stephanie is nice, and it's fun to play with her, but it takes a lot of cognitive and emotional effort to coordinate our activities, and now I'm just plumb tuckered out." Instead, we intuit when our children have reached the end of their rope, and we say something like, "Let's have some quiet time reading on the couch" or "Let's go play on the swings."

3) Creative intuition:

This kind of intuition involves gaining a new insight by following a "hunch" that something new or different might work. It involves combining knowledge in new ways. Creative intuition often involves a "precolating" phase that leads up to the creative breakthrough. Maybe you’ve had a difficult situation that came up again and again—bed time dawdling or arguing about who sits where in the car--but then you suddenly had a bright idea of how to handle it differently. You weren’t sitting down and consciously thinking about, “How can I do this differently?” The idea just sprung to mind. This burst of inspiration about how to change a pattern is creative intuition.

4) Moral intuition:

This kind of intuition involves our "gut feelings" about what's right or wrong. If you've thought, "That just doesn't feel right to me!," (e.g., about co-sleeping or about "cry it out"), you're relying on moral intuition. You can probably come up with reasons to justify the decision, but that happens afterwards. The initial response was an immediate, intuitive “knowing.”

Broken down this way, mother's (or father's) intuition doesn’t seem so mysterious. It’s based on our expertise about our children, ourselves, and our families. The better we know our children, the more experience we’ve had making parenting decisions and learning from them, the more we can develop our “instincts.”

Does this mean we should “listen to our guts” to know how to parent? Yes. Intuition is a rapid pulling together of what we know into a “feeling” about what’s going on or what we should do. But we also need to keep in mind that intuition isn’t necessarily accurate. When we “go with our gut” we may overlook important information. We may jump to conclusions based on impressions of surface similarity. For instance, when our kids argue, we may too readily leap to defend our younger child because we remember being teased by our older sibling, and be blind to the little one’s role in the conflict.

Our best bet as parents is to combine our intuition with more deliberate thinking and learning. We want to be aware of our "gut feelings" but also deliberately weigh them along with logic and facts. 

Intuition draws from experience. As long as our experience is relevant, our intuition is relevant. The problem is that children grow and change, so sometimes as parents, we can get stuck with an old view of our children that is no longer relevant. If you've ever complained that your parents treat you like you're still 11, that could be because they're relying on out-of-date intuition about how to respond to you. Somehow you still "feel" 11 to them, even thought they "know" you're older. As parents, we need to make a point of deliberately trying to see our children as they are now, in addition to relying on our experience-based hunches.

Related posts: 

Are You a Distracted Parent?

Preventing Mom Meltdowns and Dad Detonations

Soft Criticism

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© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD. Google+ Twitter: @psychauthormom

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is an author and clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ (lic. # 35SI00425400). She frequently speaks at schools and conferences about parenting and children’s social and emotional development. www.EileenKennedyMoore.com

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Eileen Kennedy-Moore, used with permission
Source: Eileen Kennedy-Moore, used with permission

Dr. Kennedy-Moore's books and videos:

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-- Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child's True Potential || Chapters include: Tempering Perfectionism; Building Connection; Developing Motivation; Finding Joy. VIDEO preview.

-- The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends || Chapters include: The Shy Child; The Little Adult; The Short-Fused Child; The Different Drummer.

-- What About Me? 12 Ways To Get Your Parents' Attention Without Hitting Your SisterVIDEO preview.

Growing Friendships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation. You’re welcome to link to this post, but please don’t reproduce it without written permission from the author. 

Photo credit: “Mother & daughter” by Ian D. Keating / CC BY 2.0

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For further reading:

Gore, J. & Sadler-Smith, E. (2011). Unpacking intuition: A process and outcome framework. Review of General Psychology, 15, 304-316.

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