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Nurturant is not Coddly!

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I wrote this on September 21, 2004, as a reaction to the misunderstanding of Lakoff’s term “Nurturant Parent”. Slightly edited (eliminated bad links and such).

Discussions of Lakoff’s theory are going on in several places in the blogosphere, including on DailyKos and many other places…just Google it and you’ll be floored. Spend some times reading the comments – there is some good thinking there.

There is something happening in these discussions that really bothers me. There is a number of people, including some who claim to have read “Moral Politics”, who object to the use of family-based terminology. What happenned? I think several things are going on:

First, some people are misunderstanding that the family model is meant only as a metaphor for the understanding of the nation, not as a reality (they usually object along the lines of “I do not want to be treated like a kid”).

Second, some do not understand that the Lakoff’s theoretical model is not a frame itself. They complain along the lines of “if we use these terms, conservatives will destroy us by painting us as effeminate”. But, Lakoff does not suggest that we use the family-related terms in political rhetoric. Thinking of the nation as a family is a way to understand the psychological basis of framing, not a frame itself. Quite to the contrary, Lakoff suggests in several articles that progressives should use the frames that project strength, masculinity and uprightness, as well as to paint conservatives as cowards, sissies and “girlie-men”. “Moral Politics” is a theoretical book describing how cognitive frames influence the way we think about political issues, it provides some examples of conservative frames, yet does not provide ANY suggestions for progressive framing. It explains why we think the way we think. It is descriptive. The “Elephant” book, on the other hand, is prescriptive. It glosses over the theoretical construct, and concentrates on the rhetoric that progressives need to use. Most Lakoff’s articles and interviews, as well as online commentary, concentrate on framing while giving the theory very small space. Yet, the theory is complex and requires careful reading of “Moral Politics” to be understood.

Third, some object to the term “Nurturant Parent” and equate it to “mommy state”. But that is not at all what Lakoff describes in “Moral Politics”! Where does the misunderstanding come from?

I think that we can use Lakoff’s theory to explain misunderstanding of Lakoff! It is very difficult for people raised in one model to comprehend the other model. Nurturant Parent model is a 20th century invention, a relatively new thing under the Sun. Most of us have been raised in some kind of Strict Father family, or at least raised by parents who were raised in a Strict Father families but are trying hard to be “modern” and raise their kids along the Spock, Leach, Brazelton lines. For most of history, Strict Father was the norm – the only way to raise kids. Thus most of us have at least some idea how it operates, and have internalized at least some aspects of it. On the other hand, many more people have difficulty comprehending the Nurturant Parent, because it is so new it has to be learned – it is not an integral part of most people. Growing up, going to college, reading and thinking, may turn one into a progressive/liberal without internalizing the Nurturant family model. It is a two-step or two-generational process. One generation becomes liberal through learning later in life and their kids actually grow up and internalize the Nurturant Parent model. That is how the Strict Father model is slowly and gradually being replaced by the Nurturant Parent model. This process has gone much further in Europe than in the USA, but is progressing here at a decent pace, too.

Thus, many of us (progressives) in the blogosphere are first-generation progressives. We agree with a number of policies, as well as some basic principles, e.g., equality and fairness. Yet many of us did not get there by growing up in Nurturant Parent families. When we see the model explained, as in “Moral Politics”, we do not comprehend it because it is not a part of us the way it will be for our kids. This is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is a fact that many of us grew up in some type of Strict Father or mixed-type family.

If you grew up in a Strict Father family, how do you think of your mother? As nurturant and loving, of course. She was there for you, someone to run to….to run to from what? From the angry father with a belt! But that sense of “nurturant” is not the sense that Lakoff is using. Mother in the Strict Father family is on a lower rung of the ladder than her husband. She is a submissive wife. She does not have strength to stand up to him (otherwise she would have beat him up, kicked him out of the house, dragged him through a messy divorce, took all his possessions, and hit him with a huge alimony). But you cannot be a Nurturant Parent without strength! Enormous strength is needed to be an effective Nurturant Parent! It takes time, energy, intelligence, knowledge and huge empathy to be a good parent. To be a good parent one also needs to be fit, healthy and happy in order to survive the task of parenting 24/7 as well as to be able to project empathy. This is hard work! A wife of a Strict Father is nowhere near up to that task. She is weak, thus not Nurturant. She hugs the kids when Father is around, and invokes his authority when he is not around because she has no real authority over the kids herself.

If you grow up in a Strict Father family, and then someone gives you terms “Strict Father” and “Nurturant Parent”, you automatically think of your own family – that is the only mental model you have – and assume that the nurturant parent is your weak mother. Of course that is not the kind of political leadership you want! Who wants a weak, ineffectual, submissive President! But that is not at all what “Nurturant Parent” is. First of all, Nurturant Parents are two! A father and a mother (ot two fathers or two mothers – hence only recently has gay marriage appeared on the scene and is driving conservatives crazy), both equally involved, both strong, both empathetic, both authoritative without being authoritarian, both involved in a two-way communication between themselves and the kids. It takes more strength to be a good Nurturant Parent than to be a so-called “strong” strict father who goes out, makes money, has a beer with buddies, comes home to warm dinner, reads the “Wall Street Journal”, watches football, yells at the kids, and expects his wife to clean the house and obey him unconditionally.

Nurturant Parents are strong. Strict Father is macho and abusive (covering up for doubts about own masculine prowess). His wife is subordinate and weak. I want a “Nurturant Parent” for President, not this guy we have right now – all posture, no strength. I bet Bush is gay or bi or sexually disfunctional. Next time Bush and Kerry give speeches, do not watch them on TV – listen to them on the radio. You will notice how Bush’s voice is high-pitched, whiny, insecure, and effeminate. Kerry’s voice is deep, sure, masculine and powerful – he can provide a voice for God in a cartoon.

My copy of “Elephant” has finally arrived and I will read it tomorrow and post my thoughts on it soon.

UPDATE:
I picked up my copy of Elephant today (Wednesday, 22nd). I have read the first 34 pages online last week and now had a first quick look at the rest. As I predicted, it leaves the theory aside (and that is good – let the family-related terms remain in the academic literature, e.g., “Moral Politics”) and focuses on practical advice for framing one’s arguments and communicating to independents and conservatives.
Some chapters have been adapted frm articles he has published before (mostly available on the Rockridge Institute site).
Interestingly, on page 96, he responds to the question about Nurturant Parent being equivalent to “mommy state” and he responds EXACTLY the way I did above. I feel good about myself, of course… ;-)
Get the Book!

Comments

  1. #1 Mrs. Robinson
    October 30, 2006

    Coturnix, I got frustrated early on (having read the books) at the way progressives were misunderstanding and misusing the gift that Lakoff gave them. It got execrably sound-byted, diluted, talking-headed, and mangled beyond recognition — or utility. Its very complexity made it almost incomprehesible in a world where no idea that requires more than 10 seconds to explain has a chance.

    I tried, in various places and for a long time, to explain the background and the depth. And then I realized that the train had simply left — the public had developed its own (extremely flawed) understanding, and even trying to argue with it was a fool’s errand (and bound to make me look like one, since it involved all kinds of hair-splitting people had no patience for). And, weirdly, the people who’d internalized this new interpretation were often so sure of it that I’d occasionally find myself accused of not understanding — even when I was the only one in the conversation who’d actually read the damned book.

    It’s this flawed understanding — now so deeply embedded in the progressive consciousness as to be inarguable — that is useless. Which is why we need to move on. The orginal construct was brilliant. But it’s been so corrupted at this point by what people think they know that there’s probably no hope of us ever making really effective use of it.

    It’s a cautionary tale to remember going forward.

  2. #2 coturnix
    October 30, 2006

    Unfortunately, you are correct. That is why I rarely, if ever, write about this any more (after more than 100 posts on the topic – see the “Best politics posts” link on the left side-bar). I kept frothing at the mouth about the need to ignore the “Elephant” and read “Moral Politics” before mouthing about it, but to no avail.

  3. #3 kim
    October 31, 2006

    This is great! I, too, have been very frustrated by people’s inability to understand Lakoff’s ideas.
    I think part of the problem is that Freud’s idea about having a conscious and an unconscious mind never really caught on, and now fewer and fewer people understand or believe there is an unconscious. Look at people’s arguments about “nurturing mother” (I keep saying, “Not mother, it’s Parent!!!”)– they keep saying “I don’t want to be a kid to some governmental mother” as if they have no idea that the family construct is unconscious and Lakoff’s formulation is descriptive rather than prescriptive. And no amount of telling them seems to get it through to them — your explanation here is very good. I don’t remember seeing the same explanation in Lakoff’s books: I read Elephant and Moral Politics, but before hearing what all these people had to say about the ideas, so I may just not have been focused on answers to objections I hadn’t yet heard.

  4. #4 etbnc
    October 31, 2006

    Fortunately it seems to me the concepts can be applied effectively without explaining them.

    Occasionally when folks notice effective persuasion occurring, they become self-motivated to learn and understand the technique. I find those occasions gratifying.

    Cheers,

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