Thursday, July 10, 2008

Strict Father vs. Nurturant Parent

Bill Bishop's The Big Sort considers Marc Heatherington and Jonathan Weiler's study of two contrasting views of childrearing as they correlate with political parties. The National Election Survey, a major University of Michigan study that is repeated periodically, asks whether is more important for children to have one positive quality versus another positive quality, such as being considerate or well behaved, or obedient of self-reliant? Heatherington and Weiler made a scale, with respectful, obedient, well-mannered, and well-behaved adding up to one view, while independent, self-reliant, curious, and considerate added up to another. They called the first view "strict father," and the latter, "nurturant parent."

The main finding of Heatherington and Weiler's study is that Republicans tend to be strict fathers, while Democrats tend to be nurturant parents. This is not so surprising now. It is fairly common to see the Republican and Democratic Parties contrasted as the Daddy Party and the Mommy Party.

What is most interesting is that as recently as 1992 there was not a partisan difference between the two views of childrearing. There is a clear difference only in 2000. Now the divide is so large that, at least among white voters, the strict father/nurturant parent contrast is a better predictor of political party than income is.

Going beyond what Heatherington and Weiler, or Bishop, talk about, there is one feature of this finding that bothers me as a sociologist. Society is not simply the individual writ large. Social structures have their own necessities and logic, beyond what any individual might do. Society is not a big family; the state is not really like mom, dad, or both. I don't fault the researchers -- they are describing reality. But I do worry that the normal human propensity to use social power as if it were personal power is growing.

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