How Good Are Your Mommy Instincts?

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen, REDBOOK

A recent letter to Slate's "Dear Prudence" advice column ignited a mommy firestorm when the letter writer described a situation in which a friend of her parents had taken an interest in her 5-year-old daughter, bringing her small gifts and playing with her when the tot visited her grandparents. While all visits and gift-giving occurred in the presence of the girl's grandparents and the man's wife, the mother writes, "It feels like he is grooming her to trust him, and my mommy-warning sirens are screaming." Even though she adds, "I have no proof or even a suspicion of impropriety on this man's part" she wants to know how to tell her parents she doesn't want her kids to be around Grandpa's friend.

Prudence advises her, "I would never say any parent should ignore a gut feeling about her child's safety. But from your description of this situation, my gut feeling is that you have overactive mommy bowels. If you see every friendly man as a potential predator, you're going to convey unnecessary fear and anxiety to your children." So which is the worse sin: The letter writer accusing a likely innocent man of pedophilia tendencies or Prudence telling her that her "mommy gut" is just overactive "mommy bowels"?

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The problem is that often we moms have nothing else to go on but our instincts. Kids are tricky creatures and little ones don't communicate very well, so even figuring out what they want to eat can mean playing charades for 20 minutes. But we moms get good at reading our kids-I can tell just from the look in my son's eyes if he has a fever, and I can see a toddler tantrum brewing in my sweet daughter like a storm on the horizon. On a greater scale, I remember taking my son to see the pediatrician when he had a fever, and the doctor dismissed it as a simple flu. Once we were home, however, I just knew in my gut something was wrong with my boy and took him to the ER. It turned out he had a life-threatening infection that might have ended disastrously if I hadn't brought him in when I did. As it was, he was in the hospital for 5 days on IV antibiotics. The Mommy Instinct is a powerful tool, sometimes with life and death consequences.

But how good are our instincts, really? The science in the field of heuristics-rules of thumb thought to be the precursors to instinct-is not very promising. While there is lots of anecdotal evidence about the power of the "mommy gut," we also tend to remember the times we got it right better than the (many) times we've got it wrong. I remember one time being 100% sure that my son was telling me the truth about an incident at school-until his teacher showed me irrefutable proof that the little stinker was lying.

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Sometimes our gut is right-and sometimes it's wrong-but it seems wise to err on the side of safety. Nevertheless, I also don't want my kids to grow up fearful of the world they live in either. What's a mom to do?

How accurate are your mommy instincts? Have you ever had a moment where listening to your gut saved your child's life? Have you ever been wrong?

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