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Lakoff’s Strict Father v. Nurturant Parent

In his 2004 analysis, Don’t Think of an Elephant!, George Lakoff contrasts the mental models of the conservative and progressive mindsets. See Lakoff clip. The former, he denominates the “strict father.” This worldview is premised on the presumption that the world is a dangerous place. There always has been and forever will be evil in the world. This is a world in which there are winners and losers. There is absolute right and absolute wrong. Children are born to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore they have to be made “good.” This is the world in which a strict father protects and supports the family, while teaching his children right from wrong. Children must be obedient to the moral authority of the father. Punishment sometimes is necessary to secure such obedience. Punishment teaches internal discipline. Moreover, it is what is necessary for survival and success in a difficult, competitive world. Lakoff ‘s strict father model links morality with prosperity. The same discipline that makes you moral, allows you to prosper. Self interest is a moral quality. As each pursues his/her individual self-interest , the interest of all is maximized. To be a “good person,” you have to be obedient, to learn what is right, do what is right and pursue your self interest, prosper and become self-reliant.

Some, however, do not pursue this path. These are the “do-gooders.” A do-gooder tries to help someone else rather than him/herself and impedes those who are pursuing their own self interests. According to Lakoff, in the Strict Father model, “Do-gooders screw up the system.”

Lakoff  contrasts the Strict Father worldview, in which the father is the strict authoritarian, with the progressive Nurturant Parent worldview, which is  gender-neutral. Here both parents are equally responsible for child rearing. It assumes that children are born good and can only be made better. The parents’ role is to nurture their own children so that they will  become nurturers of others, making the world better place. Nurturing is premised on empathy and responsibility. It incorporates the notion that you cannot nurture someone else if you do not care for yourself. You have to be strong, to work hard and to develop your competencies.

Empathy and responsibility, in the Nurturant Parent model, include the notion of protection — at both an individual and systems level.  If you cannot individually protect your child, say for example, from smoking, it is altogether appropriate to seek government  intervention to do so. Another feature of the Nurturant Parent model is enabling your children to become fulfilled and happy. To do so, it is your responsibility to become fulfilled and happy yourself.  Other nurturant values include freedom, opportunity, fairness,  honesty and transparency,  as well as cooperation and community building.

Lakoff  goes on to distinguish various types of conservatives and progressives. But he maintains, at bottom, each adheres, in the political domain, to their respective model.

What struck me about the models,  a day or two after finishing the book, was how pervasively the models applied to other domains in life. While Lakoff  acknowledges that one could accept a Strict Father model in one domain while, at the same time, holding a Nurturant Parent model in another (he cites the example of a blue-collar worker adhering to  Strict Father at home in parenting, while holding a Nurturant Parent model at work in terms of worker safety),  I suspect that it is infrequently the case. One of the reasons that I believe this to be true is that there is too much cognitive dissonance between the models.  It is very hard to maintain both value sets concurrently. Even if you are able to do so, stress would appear to be an inevitable outcome. That is probably why you don’t find too many environmentalists working for oil companies. Or, right to lifers working for Planned Parenthood. But those are the easy cases. Where things get so much more interesting is when you are engaged with an institution where the model is not altogether transparent. Try this. Look at the following list of institutions and immediately respond ( within 1-2 seconds) as to which is “strict” or “nurturant.”

Roman Catholic Church; Exxon/Mobil; Google; Red Cross; Apple; Veterans Administration; Johnson & Johnson; Genentech; Tesla Motors; Social Security Administration; American Heart Association; Bank of America; Goldman Sachs; Facebook; IBM; Microsoft; Coca-Cola; World Bank; Whole Foods; United Nations; Coors; General Motors; Toyota; General Electric; American Cancer Society; Dow Jones; New York Times; Rolling Stone; 20th Century Fox; Zynga;  Internal Revenue Service

Were there any to which you had no reaction?  What led you to make the call you did? Which of the two models do you most consistently adhere to? Do you hold one model in certain domains and the second in others? When you review your decisions on the above list, is there any correlation between the entities you “like” or “dislike” and your predominant model choice? Do Lakoff’s models assist you in the way you interact with the world or are you better off without them?

Shortly, I will describe my own dilemma in dealing with these models in connection with one of my life pursuits.







Tim Tosta
Life Coach


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