Disciplining vs. Nurturing4 min read

Polarity thinking

How can we embrace and balance the truth of opposites?


There are many rifts along the great, ever-widening, divide between conservatives and progressives. But perhaps the deepest and most important is that between disciplining and nurturing

Conservatives favor the more rigid path of disciplining or “tough love.” People go far when they are given a tight structure to follow and when they are rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad behavior. Through this path, people learn to work hard and become self-sufficient.

Progressives, however, see the world differently. They want a world where everyone is treated with compassion and kindness, where everyone is free to explore their passions and own unique self. Bad behavior is met with more attention and support. Through this path, we build a society where no one is left behind and everyone feels that they belong.

The poles and their origins

As Geoff Lakoff explored in his now classic 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, conservatives and liberals use two contrasting cognitive frames (i.e. lenses through which they see and make sense of the world): the strict father model and the nurturant parent model. These frames shape both what we believe to be good and moral, as well as literally how we make sense of the world. They are deeply embedded in our mental structures.

If you look closely, these cognitive frames are at the heart of the polarity between disciplining and nurturing.

Strict father model

Conservatives view the world primarily from the belief that we must be strict parents who teach discipline to our children. When someone in society does something illegal, we punish them. When they don’t live their lives in a moral way, they have to deal with the just consequences of living in poverty.

The world is an inherently hostile place and we must teach everyone to fend for themselves. Our goal is to make individuals within society self-reliant and self-disciplining. Any kind of benefits or government assistance actually derails individuals from attaining self-reliance, and thus hinders them from being good, moral individuals, and thus are immoral themselves.

Ultimately, people are responsible for their own circumstances in life.

Nurturant parent model

By contrast, progressives tend to work from a different frame, one in which compassion and nurturance are the keys to unlocking our human potential. In a world that is neither inherently hostile or benevolent, we all do better when we all take care of each other.

We create a world that is benevolent, rather than assuming it is hostile. When someone in society does something illegal, we ask how society pushed them toward those behaviors and how society itself must change. When we see stark differences in outcomes among different groups, we assume this is because society is unjust. Our goal is to all serve the common good such that we can all prosper together and no one is left behind, even if there are a few “freeloaders.”

Ultimately, society plays a dominant role in who comes into economical, political, and social power and is responsible for bringing justice to all.

The middle way

We waste a lot of time arguing which side is right. And in doing so, we fail to see this as a polarity that needs to be managed.

Indeed, in our ideal world, we’d find a way to balance and embrace both opposing energies. The higher wisdom is in knowing that both of these approaches are appropriate for some situations, and both are inappropriate for others. The higher wisdom is in discerning what is needed for a given moment and being flexible enough to offer the moment what it needs, whether it be radical compassion, tough love, or better yet, both.

Embracing both of these opposing energies is essential. It allows us to build dynamic, well-adjusted humans who both are both self-reliant and deeply compassionate of their fellow humans. And perhaps even more importantly, it moves us away from the toxic judgment and misunderstanding of one another that separates us.

If we don’t learn to see and manage polarities, we will continue to find ourselves helplessly and needlessly polarized, all of us grasping at only one piece of the puzzle.

Published by Peter Schulte

Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA with his partner Sara, child Owen, and cat Winnie.

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