The gut instinct–it’s something we are born with. I’ve been told that the reason our gut is so connected to our heart and brain is because these are the first three organs that form when a new human is developing. Our gut has literally been our safe-keeper, not only nourishing the body with the nutrients we feed it, but alerting us to potential danger so that our limbic system can jump into action and protect us.
Our gut has saved our lives for hundreds of generations. So why do we struggle with listening to it?
Because we’re taught as children to ignore it.
When kids are put into social situations, it is quite common for the grownups to expect the kids to interact with adults in a respectful manner. We are taught how to politely introduce ourselves (make eye contact, offer a hand to shake) and any hesitation to do so is generally greeted with an apology to the adult and a forceful urging to the child not to be rude.
Have we ever stopped to think that children are not being shy or rude, but rather, that their gut is telling them that this stranger in front of them is making them feel like something isn’t right? As adults, it is our responsibility not to shame our children into feeling okay with someone that makes them uncomfortable.
The earliest memory I have of feeling my gut telling me something wasn’t right was when my dad allowed one of his employees to park his fifth wheel trailer on the side of our house and take up residence. My mom drew a clear boundary that Phil would not be allowed in the house when my dad wasn’t home, and that he absolutely was not permitted to shower in our home under any circumstance. I was twelve or thirteen and I’m certain that my mom was feeling a need to protect her two daughters from whatever wayward thoughts had entered this man’s mind.
Phil always made me uneasy, but as a child who didn’t yet understand what a gut instinct was, I couldn’t put a finger on it. He was someone that I was always very cautious around and I made sure to keep a pulse on how things were going between him and my dad. I had watched enough America’s Most Wanted by that time in my life to know that a bad day could end up with all of us massacred. That was what my gut was telling me about this guy. We were overreacting.
My dad advocated for Phil, saying he was a family man and a good worker who just needed to get a leg up in the world. Phil was a recovering alcoholic and was committed to bettering his life and my dad decided that he was the one to support him in that. When Phil spoke of his own daughter, I often wondered why it was that he didn’t see her, even though it was clear that he had a desire to. Was he not allowed? Did something happen? No matter what uncomfortable jokes we made at Phil’s expense, my dad always came to Phil’s defense. The gut feelings that my mom and I clearly had were called bogus. Phil was a decent guy.
Fortunately, nothing ever happened with Phil. He worked for my dad for several months, living in a trailer in our side yard. I steered clear of him as much as possible, but was always aware of what he was doing. He disappeared one night and we never saw him again. The relief my mom sighed was a collective one. In hindsight, my dad was able to recognize that something wasn’t right with the guy and he recently apologized for putting us through that.
My daughter was sexually assaulted at the age of seven. By a classmate. When I first heard the news, I was taken aback. Her assailant was a child that was the resident bully. According to her, this kid made “everyone, even the teachers, feel nervous.” This insight was shared with me when she was in kindergarten and I didn’t even think to say anything to my child about what her gut was telling her about him.
Story after story piled up about how he was bullying the other boys at school, all of which were relatively violent. One boy was angrily shoved off the monkey bars and broke his arm pretty badly. No one wanted to play with him any more, and that only made him more aggressive as he fought to be included. His mom always defended him, giving excuses about him struggling at home for his acting out. The principal tended to fall into classic patterns of victim shaming, reminding the students that if they were uncomfortable with this kid, they should simply avoid him.
When my daughter came home from school one day and let me know that she had spent the day with the school counselor because this boy had put his hand in her pants. I was really confused as to what she meant and as she described what happened to me, I started to get angry.
A few hours later, the school counselor called me and by the time she did, I was livid that I hadn’t gotten a call from the school first and ripped into her before she could tell me what happened.
At an unknown point in the recent past, there was an incident in the classroom where this boy had maneuvered himself so that he could intentionally put his hand down the back of my child’s pants and squeeze her bottom. Several students witnessed it, but no one said anything when it happened. The school only found out about it because a teacher overheard some kids teasing my daughter about it during early morning care one day.
The school immediately investigated the situation and, after interviewing all involved, both the principal and the mom brushed the incident off as no big deal. Irate, I reminded them that touching a person in their private area without their consent is sexual assault and while these kids were only seven, it was clearly a very intentional act. I was told that I was overreacting and got asked if I really believed that a seven-year-old had any idea of what he was doing (I did).
I remember thinking what on earth had happened to this kid that he was assaulting others in such a predatory manner.
I escalated the situation to the school district and filed a formal complaint against the principal. The principal was reprimanded and the kid disappeared for a couple of years (we had believed he’d been expelled, but he was just sent to live with his dad for a bit). The school counselor quickly responded by booking a seminar with KidPower, a curriculum designed to teach children personal safety from a place of empowerment, not fear. It was amazing.
The moderators took the kids through fun exercises where they were always the focal point, not the “grownups you came with.” They taught the kids that a stranger is someone you haven’t met yet and then they launched into something completely unexpected: teaching the kids about gut instinct.
They talked about the feeling you get in your tummy that makes you feel a little weird. They explained to the kids that sometimes, they will get that feeling in their tummy when they meet some strangers, but not all strangers. And most importantly, they taught the kids to heed that feeling and what to do if they are around a stranger that makes them feel uncomfortable.
Their message was fairly simple: sometimes you will meet people that don’t make you feel right. It’s okay to feel that way, and if you do, speak up and be safe.
As we left that night, I kept thinking about all the ways we enable the idea in our kids that they need to suppress their gut feelings. When kids do find the courage to speak up, it is often met with a dismissal or a defense of the person in question. My dad rewarded our courage by defending the guy. When a small child hides his or her face against their grownups body, they are prodded to turn and “be polite.” When a child brushes off a hug and says, “don’t touch me!” in frustration, we respond by insisting that they accept.
What inevitably happens is that they grow up not understanding that “no means no” and that it’s okay to make someone else uncomfortable if you really want something. They also learn that there is shame in feeling uncomfortable and they learn not to speak up. This is the dangerous gateway to rape culture.
It’s how they learn not to be their own advocate and use empowering phrases such as “I want…”, “I need…” and “I expect…” when asking for something. It’s where feelings of shame and doubt creep in and they grow into adults that cannot function in the harsh reality of the real world.
What would it look like instead, if we taught our kids to listen to their gut and then supported them when they did? Would they become adults that are riddled with shame, or would they become adults that are confident in their skin and willing to speak up when something isn’t right?
In order for us to teach our children to respect the instinct their gut is giving them, we must learn to respect their instincts too.