Following your instincts, Part I

Fridays are a short day for me – while I’m usually off work, my husband and I have lots of cooking to do, the kids are home from school early, and the usual scramble towards getting ready for the Sabbath are not awfully conducive to blogging. Therefore, Friday post will usually be either brief or absent. The subject matter is probably long enough for two posts anyway.


Another term used interchangeably by APers to describe their parenting method is “Instinctual Parenting”. AP moms and their gurus will exhort you to “follow your instincts!”, even as, without skipping a beat, they proceed to tell you what those instincts should be. The implication is that mothers have some universal, inborn, some even claim hormonally determined “mothering urges” that we’d all be practicing, but for the destructive influence of western civilization. Obviously, if your inner voice is leading you towards cribs, bottles and a mixing motherhood and a career outside the home, your instincts must either be defective or badly suppressed. Right?

Well…no. The problem is that “instinct” is a somewhat ill-defined word in the English language. While we often use the word to define any involuntary response (e.g., “He instinctively shied away from the dirty dog”), it has also been used interchangeably with what ethologists call a Fixed Action Pattern, which is seen in the animal kingdom. A classic example of a fixed action pattern is that of the Sphex wasp, also known as the digger wasp. This wasp has a genetically-programmed, sterotypical behavior pattern that emerges when building a nest for their eggs:

Some Sphex wasps drop a paralyzed insect near the opening of the nest. Before taking provisions into the nest, the Sphex first inspects the nest, leaving the prey outside. During the wasp’s inspection of the nest an experimenter can move the prey a few inches away from the opening of the nest. When the Sphex emerges from the nest ready to drag in the prey, it finds the prey missing. The Sphex quickly locates the moved prey, but now its behavioral “program” has been reset. After dragging the prey back to the opening of the nest, once again the Sphex is compelled to inspect the nest, so the prey is again dropped and left outside during another stereotypical inspection of the nest. This iteration can be repeated again and again, with the Sphex never seeming to notice what is going on, never able to escape from its genetically-programmed sequence of behaviors.

Needless to say, human parenting – no matter who is doing it, or how – is hardly so mindless an activity. In fact, the noted professor of cognitive science, Douglas Hofstadter, coined the term “antisphexishness” to describe human behavior in his wonderful book, Metamagical Themas. Humans have free will and are capable of interacting with their environment in a far more sophisticated way than your average insect.

“Well, of course”, I can just imagine our APer rolling her eyes in contempt, “I wasn’t talking about that kind of instinct. I was merely telling mothers that if they really followed their hearts with regard to parenting, they would find it leads them towards AP”.

In other words, she is telling mothers to use their intuition. But what causes us to have certain intuitions, and will our intuitions always steer us right?

That’ll have to wait until next post. Right now, I need to go be responsive and sensitive to my kids’ need for baths 😉 .

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