Parenting With Instinct and Learning To Forgive Yourself

I posted a status on my personal facebook page recently about how I was going to relax with a book – the book in question being Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting. The response I got was that my friends thought it was a good book, with challenging ideas but reading it had been “anything but relaxing” for them. The idea that they had been causing hurt to their child through acts such as praise or love withdrawal, unintentional as it may be, was heartrenching for them to read. A similar passage can be found in Jean Liedloff’s Continuum concept, where a parent remarked –

I think your book was one of the cruellest things I’ve ever read. I am not suggesting that you should not have written it. I am not even saying that I wish I had not read it. It’s simply that it impressed me profoundly, hurt me deeply, intrigued me greatly.I do not want to face the possible truth of your theory and am trying my best to avoid facing it.


As someone who is constantly reading and researching all things parenting, I know exactly what these mothers were describing. I remember experiencing these feelings too after reading things which contradicted my then current thoughts. I spent so long worrying about how I could have handled a situation differently, how my birth experience could have been calmer, how I could have done a better job of parenting, that I decided to make a rule. This being, that I would always do my best as a parent with the knowledge I had up until that moment. If I then read something that I agreed with that challenged my current parenting, I would take the information on board, adapt my current practices and continue from there. But I would not feel guilty for not knowing this before. How could I feel guilty for doing my best?

Some people are so worried about what they might discover, so afraid of feeling guilty about their choices, that they prefer to keep on as they are and not hear another perspective. That is not helping them as a parent, and it certainly is not helping their children. Isn’t it better to reach in to the unknown and better yourself as a parent, find new ways to bond and work in partnership with your child, than to put the blinkers on and do it as you have always done for fear of what you might find?

I agree that parenting “should” be about following your instincts and in an ideal world you would never need to read a book, blog or anything else. However there are two barriers to parenting wholly with instinct.

One is a cultural barrier. How you were raised will have shaped your instincts as a parent. If you were raised in a loving and accepting home where you were loved unconditionally, guided gently and free to be yourself you will likely do the same for your children. However, if you were parented, as many people are, with punishments (verbal, physical or restrictive), lack of freedom, helicopter parenting, or in a “children should be seen but not heard” household where you could never really show your true feelings for fear of repercussion, this will be ingrained in to your instincts.

The second barrier is society. The expectations society has of our parenting are pushed on us from the moment we conceive, if not before. Everyone has an opinion on how you should parent, where your baby should sleep, what children should eat, what is appropriate behaviour for a child and how they should be treated if they misbehave. Programmes on television “teach us” how to manage our children so that even before we have had our own babies, we have already spent years being armchair parents, learning about the benefits of sleep training and time outs from a host of experts who have no children of their own.

So, to parent instinctively is not always as simple as it sounds. What we need to do is to educate ourselves on alternative parenting methods and when we find a style that suits us, we must use rational thoughts to override our current instincts. For example the urge to smack or shout at your child when they don’t comply with your request may be your first instinct, but if you stop, take a few breaths and think of a gentle technique, not only will your child benefit from your thoughtful parenting, but you will grow and develop as a parent too. After a while of thinking before doing, these actions will replace your previous reactions and will become natural to you. You will have rewritten your instincts and as such, now you really can parent instinctively.

It doesn’t stop here though. There is no harm in continuing to learn and challenge your own ideas and methods. Sometimes you will agree and incorporate this new information in to your parenting, other times you wont. Don’t ever feel like you have to do something just because other parents, even those that you admire are doing it. Following the crowd unquestioningly rarely leads to good for the individual.

Read, learn, take risks and above all, forgive yourself for your past choices. Nothing can be gained from dwelling on them. We are all learning, we may do things we would not do again but recognising that is better than staying in the dark and avoiding hearing about another way. A lot can be said for apologising to your child, explaining that you were in the wrong and moving on. Together.

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