‘strict father’ vs. ‘nurturant parent’

I wasn’t sure whether to post this here or over on the grip diaries — it’s one of the few subjects that bridges the gap.

George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist that’s done a lot of work on metaphor and how our thoughts — and even our brains — are structured around them. (It’s pretty wonky.) When he turned his attention to politics, the result was a new book. His thesis (which you can read about in great detail here) is that what divides liberals and conservatives at root is not so much a set of policy positions as a deep-seated, fundamental metaphor for parenthood.

You might wonder what parenting has to do with politics. Quite a lot, Lakoff thinks.

Conservatives, he says, subscribe to the “strict father” model. Here’s a too-long description:

Life is seen as fundamentally difficult and the world as fundamentally dangerous. Evil is conceptualized as a force in the world, and it is the father’s job to support his family and protect it from evils — both external and internal. External evils include enemies, hardships, and temptations. Internal evils come in the form of uncontrolled desires and are as threatening as external ones. The father embodies the values needed to make one’s way in the world and to support a family: he is morally strong, self-disciplined, frugal, temperate, and restrained. He sets an example by holding himself to high standards. He insists on his moral authority, commands obedience, and when he doesn’t get it, metes out retribution as fairly and justly as he knows how. It is his job to protect and support his family, and he believes that safety comes out of strength.

In addition to support and protection, the father’s primary duty is tell his children what is right and wrong, punish them when they do wrong, and to bring them up to be self-disciplined and self-reliant. Through self-denial, the children can build strength against internal evils. In this way, he teaches his children to be self-disciplined, industrious, polite, trustworthy, and respectful of authority.

The strict father provides nurturance and expresses his devotion to his family by supporting and protecting them, but just as importantly by setting and enforcing strict moral bounds and by inculcating self-discipline and self-reliance through hard work and self-denial. This builds character. For the strict father, strictness is a form of nurturance and love — tough love.

The strict father is restrained in showing affection and emotion overtly, and prefers the appearance of strength and calm. He gives to charity as an expression of compassion for those less fortunate than he and as an expression of gratitude for his own good fortune.

Once his children are grown — once they have become self-disciplined and self-reliant — they are on their own and must succeed or fail by themselves; he does not meddle in their lives, just as he doesn’t want any external authority meddling in his life.

Liberals, he says, subscribe to the “nurturant parent” model:

The primal experience behind this model is one of being cared for and cared about, having one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from one’s community and from caring for and about others.

People are realized in and through their “secure attachments”: through their positive relationships to others, through their contribution to their community, and through the ways in which they develop their potential and find joy in life. Work is a means toward these ends, and it is through work that these forms of meaning are realized. All of this requires strength and self-discipline, which are fostered by the constant support of, and attachment to, those who love and care about you.

Protection is a form of caring, and protection from external dangers takes up a significant part of the nurturant parent’s attention. The world is filled with evils that can harm a child, and it is the nurturant parent’s duty to be ward them off. Crime and drugs are, of course, significant, but so are less obvious dangers: cigarettes, cars without seat belts, dangerous toys, inflammable clothing, pollution, asbestos, lead paint, pesticides in food, diseases, unscrupulous businessmen, and so on. Protection of innocent and helpless children from such evils is a major part of a nurturant parent’s job.

Children are taught self-discipline in the service of nurturance: to take care of themselves, to deal with existing hardships, to be responsible to others, and to realize their potential. Children are also taught self-nurturance: the intrinsic value of emotional connection with others, of health, of education, of art, of communion with the natural world, and of being able to take care of oneself. In addition to learning the discipline required for responsibility and self-nurturance, it is important that children have a childhood, that they learn to develop their imaginations, and that they just plain have fun.

Through empathizing and interacting positively with their children, parents develop close bonds with children and teach them empathy and responsibility toward others and toward society. Nurturant parents view the family as a community in which children have commitments and responsibilities that grow out of empathy for others. The obedience of children comes out of love and respect for parents, not out of fear of punishment. When children do wrong, nurturant parents choose restitution over retribution whenever possible as a form of justice. Retribution is reserved for those who harm their children.

The pursuit of self-interest is shaped by these values: anything inconsistent with these values is not in one’s self-interest. Pursuing self-interest, so understood, is a means for fulfilling the values of the model.

Basically, to cut an already-long story a little shorter, people carry these models into politics. Lakoff goes on about it for many hundreds of pages.

Lots of people think this theory is grande horseshit. I think it’s about medium horseshit. It’s partial, only a truncated facet of a bigger picture, but it is suggestive and worth giving some thought. It rings true to my formative experiences (to put it delicately). The intriguing thing is that according to the many empirical studies Lakoff cites, the nurturant parent model produces more productive, healthy, happy adults, as measured by a range of criteria from economic to psychological.

There’s no such consensus about the models in politics, but suffice it to say, my political views follow pretty directly from my belief that the “nurturant parent” model — a term I loathe, incidentally — works best in domestic and international politics as well. It’s hard for me to see how it could be so clearly true for familial (and communal) matters and not for anything broader than that.