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Parenting from the gut

Some of the best mistakes we ever make arise when we go with our gut. 

That person you should not have dated – you learned a lot about what you want in a relationship there! That investment you made without really doing any research. You took a financial bath on that one, but learned to invest based on research and good advice, not on a Subreddit comment section. 

Parenting is really quite similar. Intuition is a valid and critical aspect of raising healthy children. It is important to understand that intuition is not the same as instinct. Intuition is largely composed of feelings that lead to enhanced care and come from a place of calm reflection. Instincts, on the other hand, tend to be in-the-moment impulsive responses to threat. Parenting instinct can keep our kids safe, but may not be great at enhancing independence or trust; intuition is more likely to be moderate in nature, resulting in fewer knee-jerk reactions and enhancing relationships with your kids.

You will – if you are doing things right! – make many mistakes as a parent. Most parenting mistakes can be attributed to following your instinct, while some can be attributed to following the advice of others (and yes, I am aware of the fact that I am, right now, offering parenting advice!). At least when you follow your intuition, you are making your own mistakes and have no one to blame except yourself, which can lead to more intense learning. 

So, when should you trust your parenting intuition, and when should you seek out advice from others?

Think about some of the most common decisions parents have to make from the moment they discover that they are going to be parents. What will they name the child? What will they do about breastfeeding? Will the baby be sleep trained in a specific way? Literally thousands of small decisions must be made – and, of course, for every decision, there is someone waiting just around the corner, pushing their eyeglasses up the bridge of their nose, saying “well actually, what you should do is…” 

Is this a voice you should listen to? Well, sometimes, if the person has some knowledge that you as a parent do not have, and this knowledge is coming from a place of genuine wisdom and experience and research. On the other hand, you – as the parent – will ultimately be the expert on your child’s well-being and as such, you do need to rely on your intuitive gut from time to time.

Here’s one that many parents struggle with – how do we deal with our child’s first lie? Some parents will have a very strong reaction to such behavior, feeling that they have failed on some moral level. Others will accept lying as a normal and even healthy exploration of boundaries for a child. Once we have dealt with our own emotional reactions, the question turns to “what do we do about this situation?” Do we go into disciplinarian mode, do we hold the child accountable, do we let it slide? These and other options are variously supported and criticized in the professional literature, so really, the best bet is to go with your gut. Intuition will help you find your way! 

Unfortunately, parents can be overwhelmed by the range of choices, none of which seem to be right. The range of opinions and approaches to parenting remind me of the ongoing egg debate – specifically, are eggs good for you or not? This debate has raged for years! Some experts say, “eggs are a superfood and you should eat as many eggs as you can tolerate!” Others say, “eggs are evil and should be used only to throw at other eggs!” Ultimately, we can get overwhelmed by research and opinion, but for many parenting decisions, our intuition is often the best bet.

When you are unsure if intuition or instinct is guiding your thinking, try this: “Is my decision designed to make me feel safe, or to really protect my child?” If it is to make you feel safe because you are feeling distress, it is probably instinct; if it is based on genuine safety of the child (and it’s a decision made when you are calm and reflective) it is probably the more helpful intuition.

How to create an intuitive parenting mindset

  1. Take some deep breaths.
  2. Avoid knee-jerk reactions when possible – try to take a moment to ground your emotions.
  3. Talk with a trusted partner (but be mindful of taking their advice – it’s still your decision!)
  4. Take a moment to do something that takes your mind off the decision – read, listen to some music, exercise, etc.
  5. Keep in mind that you are trying to role model intuition so that your child will develop their own sense of intuition – one of the greatest gifts you can give them!

Dr. Brent Macdonald is a frequent guest on CBC, Global Television, Breakfast Television, and CTV. He is currently the lead psychologist with his own practice, Macdonald Psychology Group (, which in addition to providing counseling and assessment services, also provides consultation services to educators and parents.


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