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Liberal thought arises from what he calls the "Nurturant Parent” family model. There are certain assumptions inherent in this model:

The world is filled with evils that can harm

It is the nurturant parent’s responsibility to protect children from harm

Open, two-way communication is crucial

It is the parent’s willingness to entertain questions about their authority that legitimizes it.

By being respected, nurtured and communicated with children learn to develop respectful, open, caring relationships

Associated metaphors for this model are:

Morality as empathy

Morality as nurturance


Moral Self-Nurturance

Morality as social nurturance

Morality is happiness

Morality as self-development

Morality as fair distribution

Moral growth

The moral strength to nurture

Moral self-interest

Restitution over retribution

There are a multitude of implications deriving from these metaphors as described by Lakoff and summarized below.

The concept of empathy goes even further than the golden rule by saying “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” Egocentric empathy, which can go no farther than ones own feelings, is contrasted with absolute empathy which might be characterized as feeling for others with no strings attached. The parent of a child who rejected certain values would still be shown empathy but with accompanying moral instruction.

Lakoff also cites what he calls the “wooden rule” : Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – providing you can afford it easily. This is directly related to an analogy of moral accounting that is common to both nurturant parent and strict father model except that in the nurturant parent model it is charity that accrues “moral credit” and makes one a better person.

With respect to political ideologies, the competition between this ideal and the notion that government can show no favor or require nothing more based on ability, as with graduated tax schedules, is familiar to us all.

Morality presupposes empathy, has associated rights and duties and as nurturance, extends beyond the family in the sense that the community is a family. Community members have a responsibility to see that people needing help in their community are helped.

Model differences for things held as public trust (i.e. the “ownership society”) and government funds spent for the social good or “where needed most” provide rich and starkly contrasting examples of how “sense of community” plays out with each model.

Unhappy people are not likely to be compassionate so it is right to be as happy as possible as long as it does not harm others. The morality of happiness is a long-standing part of Buddhist tradition, often depicted as a smiling Buddha.

The nurturance of children is done in the service of moral growth, a central idea in religion and law. Sincere evidence of remorse has always been grounds for leniency in our legal system. Moral growth has always been associated more with progressive than conservative politics as exemplified in ideology-linked attitudes to our prison system and rehabilitation.

The nurturant parent must have moral strength since nurturing is hard work. However moral strength, common to both family models, has a much different meaning. It means that one should empathize and be nurturant towards people with different values rather than demonizing them. The notion of internal evils, for which there must be strength to resist, are also much different in the nurturant parent model, consisting of things that interfere with empathy, nurturance etc. Moral strengths include social responsibility, generosity, respect for others regardless of rank and status, openness, community-mindedness and self-respect.

Parental response to a child’s violation of moral behavior is to require restitution rather than seeking retribution but parents should fiercely protect their children by seeking retribution against those who hurt them such as polluters, drug dealers and manufacturers of dangerous products.

Clearly this model includes an orientation to discipline so classic criticisms of being “soft” or lacking toughness due to an unrealistic world-view are often leveled. Strength-with-sensitivity might be a more apt characterization, a merging of anima and animus, if you will.

With the nurturant parent model moral boundaries are not defined by prohibition of specific actions but in terms of prohibitions against actions having anti-nurturant consequences.

There is an inherent complexity in this concept, often a liability when it comes to our thumbnail-sized, sound-bite mode of communication so typical of the mainstream media. It is often much easier to cite a concise, egregiously offensive or fearful anecdote to get across a point than to explain the consequences of action, which lose some people when multiple logical steps are required. Complexity always lends itself to being easily disputed.

The nurturant parent model minimizes hierarchical relationships because legitimate authority should be a direct consequence of the ability to nurture. There is a belief that interdependence is a non-hierarchical relationship and that authority should not come out of dominance. These tenets are the exact opposite of those in the strict father model.

This aspect of the nurturant parent model differs drastically from the metaphor of moral order implicit in the strict father model. Lakoff expresses this metaphor as:

God has moral authority over human beings.

Human beings have moral authority over nature.

Adults have moral authority over children.

Men have moral authority over women.

Though even a passing familiarity with these models starts the synapses firing these definitions only bring us to the doorstep of a house full of multi-sided issues from public life, each having markedly different prescriptions suggested by each family model.

Luckily, Lakoff does not stop at the doorstep. He attempts to demonstrate the issues involved and the political ramifications. He is not without value judgment, as he takes great pains to illustrate when each model is suitable and their relative success or failure inasmuch as they are manifest in political prescriptions to a wide variety of social issues.

Lakoff’s writing did not impress me as being didactic or opinionated as he often cites examples inviting the reader to answer the question of “Who’s right?” However, he is not without his own ideas regarding the effectiveness of liberal or conservative policies.

I found Lakoff’s analysis to be a remarkable and intellectually compelling blend of both research and rhetoric, high on pathos and logos and low on ethos. He both engages and challenges the reader to think but you will find that, depending upon your ideological bent, you will be more or less challenged. Undoubtedly, all will be stimulated to think past labels and engage themselves on crucial issues of the day at a much deeper level than before.

As for myself, social responsibility compels me to do so.

NEXT: The social implications of morality models

Pat Pattillo

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The following comments are for "The Nurturant Parent Family Model"
by ppatt

Liberal Morality Metaphors
Several people, upon reading the preceding essay on the Strict Father Family Model describing the conservative morality metaphors inquired about when the other shoe would drop...when would the liberal morality metaphors be discussed. I'm not egotistical enough to think the topic deserving of comment but given previous remarks the silence is, well...a little deafening.

Is this what people expected? Is it accurate? Jaded? Does is portray the family models fairly? Does it fall short in pointing out failings?

I had thought, at least for myself, that families are so formative that the impact on later life and political attitudes could not be neglected by anyone who truly seeks to understand themselves and others.

Is this perplexing? Confusing? Does it raise questions and pose answers that are not instantly intuitive? or are counter-intuitive?

Can you identify the type of family that you arose from? I can readily identify mine as being of a certain type. Though this is not a matter of black and white and might be fraught with grays, I still expect that most people's families call more into one type or the other.

( Posted by: ppatt [Member] On: May 15, 2006 )

Lackoff Metaphor
I often regret commenting in haste. One example of this would be my comment on "Metaphors..." in which I inquired about the liberal counterpart, while I overlooked your final statement that you planned to address this next, as you did above.

I'm not sure what to make of all of this.(Lakoff's "all of this", not yours. You seem to have presented his complex concepts as clearly as possible.)

My current impression based upon your two posts so far is that Lakoff is some kind of pseudo-Freudian political psychoanalistic pedant. I may be wrong. (It has happened one or more times...)

I'm not finding fault with your presentation. It is a top-notch work full of food for thought that must be chewed slowly.

Thanks for feeding my head.


( Posted by: drsoos [Member] On: May 15, 2006 )

Lakoff Analysis
An analysis of Lakoff? I know a little about Lakoff only because a good friend of mine has a degree in linguistics and in marketing. He is a fascinating fellow who has taught me a couple of things about words and how much power they hold in our everyday lives. Linguistics framing and the dynamics of our family models go hand in hand with how we as a society and as individuals are controlled and manipulated into forming opinions in everything from what brand of shampoo we choose to buy, to which politician or political party gets our vote. I think it interesting that Democrats still don't get the importance of language in their campaign speeches and political advertising campaigns. Republicans have mastered and used framing forever and a day. My friend said George Lakoff's ideas are nothing new to linguistics and that most professionals in the public relations, marketing, and advertising fields have known for decades. Frame your words in such a way that your target audience will be able to relate to, hear, and predictably respond to. I probably don't know what I'm talking about but that's what I got from my friend. This subject and your essay is all way out of my league but it still fascinates me and I read your analysis with interest.
Is there a purpose or final goal for your analysis of Lakoff's work? Very professional presentation in any case.

( Posted by: Ashmedai [Member] On: May 15, 2006 )

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