Conservative & Liberal Families: Observations & Comparison

This post is a continuation of my thoughts from my previous post.

Social Indebtedness: Strict Father Morality & Hierarchical Authority

I didn’t intend to have a second part, but I wanted to add more context for the ideas in question… which led to further thoughts. Some of the context of my thoughts is personal and I originally decided to leave out the personal for various reasons. Sometimes I prefer discussing ideas on their own merit. Also, I’m usually a bit reluctant to bring up certain personal experiences and observations, especially when they involve others.

The personal context I’m going to discuss relates to various families I’ve known over the years. I’m not, for the most part, going to speak about the details of specific examples and I won’t name specific people (but if you know me well enough, you might be able to guess). I’m going to take these specific examples and combine them so as to characterize similarities and dissimilarities between two general categories of family. These two categories are essentially conservative vs liberal (in the social, not political, sense), but I’m not theoretically generalizing about all conservative families and all liberal families. The examples I’m drawing from are limited to my experience of growing up as a middle class white person and so the families I’m considering are also middle class white families. Another similarity is that all or most of the these families were Christian… which is typical for the US. The main difference is that some of the families are from the South and some from the Midwest (which isn’t what divides the conservative and liberal families).

The main inspiration of my thoughts here is my having read George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics. In it, Lakoff discusses the conservative Strict Father family model and the liberal Nurturant Parent family model. Lakoff extends these models into the political sphere, but I won’t be doing that. As Lakoff points out, some people might use one model for one area of their life and use the other model for another area of life. For my purpose here, it doesn’t matter how respective families may vote or how they may otherwise act outside of the family. In case you’re interested, one of the “liberal” families I’m referencing has lived in the South for generations and so I wouldn’t be surprised if they voted Republican. I consider them liberal in terms of their parenting style (i.e., Lakoff’s Nurturant Parent). If you feel confused by what is meant by Lakoff’s labels, there is plenty of info that can be found on the web describing these parenting models (including some videos of Lakoff explaining it). To give a simplistic explanation, conservative parents emphasize their own authority (and emphasize punishment when their authority isn’t respected/obeyed) and liberal parents emphasize a more informal, egalitarian relationship to their children (and emphasize explaining to a child what they did wrong).

I should add that the types I’m going to describe only indirectly relate to Lakoff’s model. In a sense, I’ll be describing two sub-types (hopefully not stereotypes) that I’m familiar with (which may or may not fit the experience of others). So, there is a definite limitation to my following analysis. Like everyone, I’m biased by my own family experiences (my parents mostly parented according to Strict Father morality but they had some Nurturant Parent tendencies) and my own socio-political preferences (moderate liberalism with leanings towards civil libertarianism, socialism, and anarchism). I’m not claiming to be perfectly objective, but I am striving to gain understanding beyond mere subjective opinion.

For certain, this isn’t a fair comparison, but the unfairness of my making these two specific categories is simply based on what I’ve observed. Life itself is unfair. The two types of family I’m considering are of parents who seem to have had very different experiences themselves growing up. The conservative examples I’m drawing from grew up in what I’d consider (as a liberal) to be marginally dysfunctional families, either severely Strict Father households (with strict punishments) or else broken families (such as divorce). This doesn’t, however, mean these parents considered their own upbringing as having been dysfunctional or that these parents would necessarily see this as the motivating factor of their having used the Strict Father model for their own children. As for my examples of liberal parents, I also can’t comment on their perceptions of how they were treated growing up by their own parents. All that I can say about these two types of parents is that the liberal parents seemed to have maintained a closer relationship with their own parents… which I think is a telling detail.

Let me give further details.

The liberal parents I speak of remained in the same town, community, or region they grew up in. So, extended family lived nearby and were seen regularly by the children of these liberal parents (informal visits, holiday gatherings, family reunions, etc). The liberal parents’ children grew up in a more stable environment. They lived in the same neighborhood their whole life or maybe moved some distance within the same community. They grew up with the same neighbors and the children of neighbors. They grew up in the same school system and knew the same kids their whole lives. They went to the same church from childhood to adulthood.

Once upon a time, almost all families would’ve fit the description of my liberal family examples. Our society, however, has become increasingly mobile. The conservative parents in my sample moved around more… maybe because they didn’t want to remain in the same area that their own parents (and extended families) lived… or maybe because the parents thought it was part of their responsibility to be successful in their careers. Obviously, this led the children of these parents to have a less stable upbringing. I think this is very important since for most of human civilization people didn’t move around much. A mobile society is quite the social experiment. For whatever reason, the conservative parents in my sample were more willing to embrace this social experiment. I really don’t know what to make of this. I don’t see any reason why Strict Father parents might on average be more likely to move around than Nurturant Parent families. I couldn’t say why this pattern exists in the families with which I’m personally familiar (and I understand that my sampling is hardly representative).

I could point out a few possible reasons. In the US, conservative family values are defined in terms of the nuclear family. I was reading something recently (I can’t recall the source) of how these nuclear family values seem to be an extension of American individualism. Conservatives, in particular, believe in individual responsibility and, from the conservative perspective, the nuclear family is an extension of the individual’s responsibility. This focus on the nuclear family has the unintended consequence of undermining the importance of extended family and of community in general. Another possibility is that conservatives are attracted to the ideal of fiscal responsibility (of course, related to individual responsibility) and conservatives seem to have more respect for those who are highly successful in the business world (a sign of individual success and hence moral fitness/superiority). Does this lead to at least a certain type of conservative to be more willing to sacrifice other aspects of their lives (such as extended family and community) for the sake of career? Or could it be that parents with less social stability caused by moving around (meaning less family, friends, and neighbors to rely upon) are more likely to emphasize a stricter parenting style in response? My intuitive sense leans toward the latter.

Let me briefly explain my why I suspect the latter.

I was recently having a discussion with a friend about Lakoff’s book. He reminded me of the book Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff which is a book I’m somewhat familiar with. Liedloff shares her observations of tribal child rearing and it’s very different than what one might expect. Despite all the dangers, tribal parents as described by Liedloff seem fairly tolerant and trusting. It makes sense once you understand. To a tribal child, there are always adults and older children around. Tribal people don’t have jobs to go to. If they have work to do, they either bring their kids with them or leave them with someone else. Children are raised by the entire tribe. There is no need for strict rules about everyday behavior when there are so many people around to supervise. This less strict (i.e., liberal) parenting style is most easily re-created in the modern world with families that have remained in the same community for multiple generations (especially if the community is small and close-knit and/or if extended family has remained nearby). It’s only natural that parents without others to offer daily support will feel a need to rely upon more strict parenting to ensure children behave even when no adults are around.

However, as Lakoff points out, there are many reasons for why parents choose a particular parenting style. Some of these reasons are purely ideological. Also, I definitely think ideological tendencies are based in psychological attitudes that may relate to inheritable genetic predispositions. As for my samples, I can’t know the specific causes and motivations. Anyways, the reasons behind all of this are secondary, for my original intent, to the results. The real measure of liberal vs conservative parenting are the families themselves, specifically in how they relate to each other.

Let me give a specific example.

In one of the conservative families, the parents are critical of those who have personal problems. Such things as poverty and addiction are seen as signs of potential moral inferiority (a typical conservative attitude). Lakoff describes this in terms of the conservative notion of moral essence. Outward behaviors or lifestyles are seen as manifestations of an inherent character that each person possesses (hence, the reason why some conservatives value career so highly). This is the judgment that was behind Reagan’s allegation of poor black women as being “Welfare Queens”. So, one of these conservative parents critcized some other parents (I believe they were part of the extended family) for having let their grown son live at home. This grown son was, as I recall, a schizophrenic and drug addict. From the conservative viewpoint, these other parents were contributing to and supporting the grown son’s immoral behavior. I doubt this conservative was blaming the person for having schizophrenia, but it would seem that this conservative didn’t think the schizophrenic was doing enough to improve his life. If he had been in a drug rehabilitation program, the conservative’s judgment probably would’ve been different. For many conservatives, drug addiction is one of the worst possible sins because it’s both immoral and illegal (meaning all around irresponsible).

Let me compare that to one of the liberal families who has a grown son living at home. This grown son is an alcoholic, but otherwise has no problems and holds down a job. He still lives at home because he often needs to be given rides. His dad worries that if he didn’t live at home he might get in trouble or hurt himself trying to get home after drinking. These liberal parents are very protective and the conservative parents would say that the liberal parents are simply protecting the grown son from the real world consequences of his actions.

This is the part that relates back to the previous post which I linked at the beginning of this post.

The essential difference here seems to be how social indebtedness is perceived. The liberal parents believe family is obligated to each other and that such obligation doesn’t need to be morally earned. The conservative parents believe in necessity of morally earning what are perceived as moral rewards. I pointed out in the other post, h0wever, that hierarchical nature of conservative views on authority translates as this moral earning only working in one direction: from child to parent and not from parent to child. The conservative view is that the child is obligated to the parent without the parent needing to have earned it. I find this odd. The child of conservative parents can’t be sure he can rely upon his own parents to be there if he has personal troubles, in particular if those personal troubles are perceived as somehow failing the parents’ moral standards. The conservative parents would be confused, though, if the grown child later on didn’t act obligingly in taking care of the parents when they need help (such as when they grow old).

The question I wonder is: How many conservative parents would actually follow through on their own ideological values? It’s easy for a conservative parent to criticize the moral failings of other parents. But would they refuse to help their own child even if they perceive their child as having caused his own problems? It’s a genuine conflict. If they did help their child despite their own moral values, their actions would be hypocritical. Or is this hypocritical? Maybe there is a greater value at stake that trumps the conservative’s normal mode of righteous judgment. Maybe some conservative parents could realize, at least in the moment of genuine need, that their own love for their child means more to them than the family values their minister has preached about at church. The significant point is that such a situation is a conflict in the first place for conservative parents. For liberal parents, there is far less sense of conflict between enforcing moral standards and loving their child because the liberal parents are less likely to have as strict of an attitude about morality.

My personal assessment, of course, is that I side with the attitude of the liberal parents. The liberal families I’m thinking of are much closer and they seem more forgiving of each other’s imperfections. Also, they seem more willing to help eachother out on a regular basis. In conservative families, on the other hand, there is more conflict and more grudges. Among these, who wouldn’t want to belong to the liberal families? It’s not that the liberals are perfect, but that the imperfections become less of an issue. One factor that might relate to this is the general attitude towards ideology. The liberal families seem to be less overtly ideological in the sense that they don’t discuss or argue about ideology much. The liberal families spend time together simply enjoying each other’s company: cooking and eating, drinking, playing games, light conversation, etc.

I’m sure that there exists examples of happy and loving conservative families, but I just don’t personally know of them. Even so, I wouldn’t try to separate these families on the basis of measuring which parents are the most loving. I imagine that most parents perceive themselves as loving. There is some factor here, though, that does relate to love or rather the child’s experience of being loved. The conservative parents seem more formal in general. I know that one of the conservative families sat down to eat and pray together which none of the liberal families did. One of the liberal families had such an informal household that it was often chaotic. There usually was no sitting down together except to watch tv. As I recall, all of the liberal parents mostly let their kids do their own thing without a lot of rules and chores. None of the liberal parents were the type to ground their kids for breaking rules as the conservative parents did. I will say that the children of one set of conservative parents were maybe better behaved in some ways, but I can’t say they were overall better and I can’t say they necessarily turned out better when they grew up. The children of the liberal parents all went to college and all have jobs. Generally speaking, the liberal families just seem closer even to this day (more than a decade after their children graduated from high school). I can’t say that means they love each other more, but closeness certainly does seem like a necessary element of familial love.

As I come to my concluding comments, let me point out one of my other biases which isn’t mine alone.

I’m a member of Generation X and I suppose I’m typical in my cynicism about my elders and about my own parents. GenXers are known for having been raised in broken families with absentee parents (but none of the parents in my sample were divorced). In general, the parents of GenXers (Silents and Boomers) have been known for their relaxed parenting style (by which I mean absentee parenting and not necessarilly liberal). GenXers have been called latchkey kids because our parents weren’t around much. The 70s and 80s were not kid-friendly times, but more important was the fact that many parents were, unlike previous generations, strongly focused on their careers to the detriment of family. Many GenX children had both parents working. It was normal for GenX children to come home to empty houses and parents typically didn’t know where their kids were after school. Parents in a two job household are busy and distracted parents. My own parents weren’t horrible parents, but they fit much of the pattern of the parents of my generation. I’m trying to sift through my generation’s childhood and separate the good from the bad.

Interestingly, the liberal families I’ve been discussing only had one parent working (or at least only one parent working a normal job that took them outside of the home). In one of these liberal families, the stay-at-home parent was the complete opposite of strict and also he had some psychological issues which caused him to not be as responsible as he otherwise might have been, but nonetheless he was always around and he spent a lot of time with his children. So, that is a big difference. The children of all these liberal parents grew up with a parent who was usually around and available. This is where I speculate that the conservative families that had two working parents felt a need to be more strict about rules for the very reason they were around less. The question is why did they choose to both work. The liberal families I’m speaking of most definitely weren’t wealthy and I have no doubt they could’ve used a second income. Maybe it’s easier to have only one parent working if you never move from the community (of family, friends, and neighbors) that you were raised in. So, the question then is: Why did the conservative parents choose to leave their childhood communities in order to seek careers that forced them to travel or else why did they choose a lifestyle of moving that required particular types of careers?

I’m of the opinion that Generation X has been more impacted by a less stable upbringing than any generation before. I’d say this impacted the children of both conservative and liberal families, but in the examples I’m familiar with this social instability had greater impact on the children of the conservative parents. Even though society itself was less kid-friendly when GenXers were growing up, the children of these liberal parents maybe had relatively more stability than most GenX children (it helped that none of the families in my sample lived below the poverty line). It’s understandable to an extent that young parents starting out in life don’t realize they are experimenting on their children. When the parents of GenXers themselves were children, they grew up at a time when stable communities were still intact to a large degreee. In the 50s and 60s, many communities were still very healthy and the downtowns were still economically viable. At that time, factories were being put up all over the place. Times were good and society was optimistic. So, these parents can’t easily understand the very different world that GenXers grew up in. This is equally true for conservative as well as liberal parents.

I’m not necessarily arguing that one group is inherently superior in all ways. Neither type of parent could possibly guess the long term results of their lifestyles and their parenting styles. Ultimately, maybe it doesn’t matter. Results are results. As I see it, the liberal parents I know of seem to have had better results. I can’t base any final conclusions on such limited observations, but I do think the comparisons I’ve made do illuminate important differences. In understanding Lakoff’s theory in the context of my personal observations, I feel confident that at least some of these perceived differences are directly correlated to the parenting styles.

On a more personal note, I must admit I feel less forgiving toward the conservative parents. Doing this comparison, I can see failings in all of the parents, whether conservative or liberal. Nonetheless, there is a difference that matters and this difference goes beyond even results. The conservative parents seem more righteous in their family values and more judgmental of the parenting style of others. Because of this, I think that their righteous judgment should be turned back towards their own failings. Even if the results (and failings) were equal, liberal parents invite forgiveness in their having a more forgiving attitude towards others and the conservative parents invite judgment in having a more judgmental attitude towards others. So, if the liberal parents taught their children anything worthy it is this attitude of acceptance and understanding. Even if the conservative parents were somehow absolutely right, how would their righteousness serve their children well and serve society in general well?

My criticisms here are partly self-criticisms. I’m not a parent and I don’t want to be. I can be quite righteously judgmental at times. This tendency in me doesn’t encourage a happy outlook nor happy relationships. For this reason (among others), I’m glad I’m not a parent. I wouldn’t want to pass on to my (hypothetical) children my own failings.

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4 Responses

  1. [...] moving and the impact it has on children (family being a topic that has been on my mind recently: Conservative & Liberal Families: Observations & Comparison). I guess it does relate to old media and to the world that once was. It may be hard to [...]

  2. [...] had the issue of righteousness on my mind while writing a previous post (Conservative & Liberal Families: Observations & Comparison). In that post, I made two points in relation to [...]

  3. [...] Conservative & Liberal Families: Observations & Comparison [...]

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