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Parenting: Learned Behavior Or Instinct?

On May 16, 2016

Once in a while it makes me cringe. Occasionally, I argue the point in the rather limited space of a comment box on Facebook. As you can tell, most recently, it has prompted me to write this article for the Scroll.

Maybe I should quit taking it so seriously, but it bothers me when people state, as if it were an indisputable fact, that mothers “just have an instinct” when it comes to caring for their children.

It’s not that there is no instinct. There might be. I admit I don’t know a lot about the biology that underlies instinctive behavior. But I do know that instinct is too often assumed to be the reason women “just know” what to do for a crying infant or a fussy preschooler when, more times than not, we women don’t have a clue the first several hundred times we’re faced with either. It would seem that if it is instinct, my first born would have cried less and I would have been less stressed at the prospect of a human life being totally dependent on first-time parents.

What success I had in calming cries or placating fussiness came more from randomly trying a variety of things until one of them worked. I rocked her, walked with her, and read and talked to her. I also got to know my daughter. I learned the difference between a hungry cry and a cry that meant she was bored and needed attention. I learned that running water calmed her, but that the noise of a vacuum cleaner did not.

Then when our son came along, I had a few years of experience and a “bag of tricks” on which I could rely. While some of those tricks worked as beautifully for him as they had for her, some did not. I had to learn his unique signals and his preferences just as I had learned hers. 

The success I had in deciphering their cries and needs and what to do in response came from being with my children over time, trying a variety of things, and then gratefully using again and again what worked.

My husband did the same. He spent time one-on-one with our daughter and son and became skilled at knowing what they needed and how those needs were best met. I don’t think either one of us learned quicker or easier—which would be the case if instinct were only a “mommy” thing.

I understand the inclination to see parenting as instinct because so often we are unaware of what we are learning as we go through life. We don’t see that we are learning parenting skills in a myriad of ways before we ever even think of having children of our own.

So if you are a mom and “just know” more than your husband, it is likely because you have been learning things for years that you weren’t even aware you were learning. For instance, through years of playing with dolls, you learned the way to hold a baby and even the soothing voice you are supposed to use when talking to an infant. If you babysat, you likely learned some things about conflict resolution and getting an uncooperative child to do what you want. If nothing else, you developed a mindset that says “If my child cries, I have to figure it out. I can’t just pass her off to someone else. It’s my baby—my job—and I need to learn it.”

For a lot of men, it’s different. Boys are not asked as often to babysit and are much less likely to be given dolls to cuddle. In fact, if you are male, you might have been actively discouraged or ridiculed if you played with a doll. In addition to not learning some basics of childcare, without even realizing it you probably developed a mindset that said, “Caring for young children is not for me.”

So imagine the couple with their first baby. When Dad picks up the crying newborn for the first time and is scared and clueless, it’s easy for him to assume: “Caring for young children is not for me. I’m terrified! Why is he crying?! I don’t know what I’m doing!” So handing the baby to Mom seems the humane thing to do. While she is likely just as scared, her mindset says “I better figure this out. I’m the mommy.” So she does. And he does not.

The next time the baby cries, who picks him up? Well, probably the one who had more success the last time. And after a while it becomes easier and easier for her because she is gradually getting more practice learning what does and does not work. Meanwhile, he is in awe of how she “just knows” what to do!

So, yes, it makes me cringe when someone insinuates that parenting is instinctual for women, but not for men, because it too often results in an imbalance that is damaging to mothers and fathers. When women are overburdened with daily (and nightly) childcare duties, their involvement in other enriching activities is limited. Likewise, fathers’ relative under involvement deprives them of some of the bonding with their young children that caregiving promotes.  

But perhaps most damaging is the unnecessary stress it puts on first-time mothers who wonder why this instinct-thing hasn’t kicked in for them yet. To believe that being female naturally makes you good at childcare is upsetting for women who have never felt particularly maternal and who are not very good at “just knowing” what children need and how to meet those needs.

It would seem to benefit all concerned if men and women understood that parenting is tough, that it doesn’t come naturally to any of us, but like anything else, it can be learned as we spend time with and get to know our children. Knowing this would seem to help women and men alike feel some relief and prompt the learning that good parenting requires.

If nothing else, I would cringe less and make fewer comments on Facebook. 


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