When I first met my future mother-in-law I saw a well-dressed conservative American navy-and-oil-business matron. She saw an ill-dressed, long-haired, over-educated, novel-writing leftist carpenter.
I was prepared. She wasnt.
Lacy had unlearned her small-town southern accent and married a naval officer so her daughter could sleep with this?
Dave Beldens reflections on life, religion, the universe and American politics appear regularly on openDemocracys Faith & ideas section which also includes writing by Antje Vollmer and Roger Scruton on Kant and Iraq, Omar al-Qattan on Disneyland Islam, and Theo Veenkamp and Geoffrey Bindman on religion and civil liberties
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But we came to love and appreciate each other deeply, and it happened fast. She said our wedding which was presided over by a woman minister in mufti under redwood trees, to our own non-theistic script, with gifts of roses and love spoons I had carved for us and our parents was more inspiring than any she had attended, including her own. I learned where my love, Debi, had acquired much of her heart and depth.
Then we had this little difference over childrearing. Lacy was alarmed that we explained everything to our baby, Rowan, even before he was verbal. As soon as he could speak, he was allowed to question: what to do today, why pre-school, why theres no money for this. If our explanations went ridiculously over his head we laughed at ourselves. Sometimes we just had to say, Trust me on this one, youll understand later. By then even our Gotta do it implied there was a good reason. We never spanked or slapped him. He got it: the legitimation was not our authority, but the reasoning behind our requirements.
Often the only good reason was our frailties: Please leave off the drumming while I have this headache. Our parenting style was normal for our friends, but a few did miss out on this mutual respect side of it.
At 10 we made him write us an essay explaining why he deserved to spend his money on something we loathed: a video-game console. His arguments persuaded us. But we insisted on limited hours of play, renegotiable. At 16 he is so used to arguing his point, so reasonable, so sure that we are too, that the mutual respect (usually) trumps the hormones (his and ours).
Maybe we are just lucky. Or maybe the consensus among mainstream childrearing manuals, like T. Berry Brazeltons Touchpoints is right: nurturant-and-empathetic as opposed to strict reward-and-punishment childrearing works best.
My parents were religious people, who had treated me in much the same way Debi and I treated Rowan: with explanations and choices, not spanking. They believed there was an overriding authority God. But they thought we should all listen to God in silence to learn what is right, not who is right. In practice, this was not so different from our appeal to reason and mutual respect. It implied the parents might be wrong.
Still, Lacy feared that we were spoiling her grandchild. She was a lovely, warm woman. But she had a different view of human and child nature. She believed we had to train unquestioning obedience into our child. Her own daughters had been told they were to be leaders in the world, but they were discouraged from challenging their fathers decisions at home.
When Lacy looked after Rowan, then aged 2, while we hunted for a new hometown, she told us on the phone: Hes so reasonable! If you explain, he understands! He came on the phone. Little pool? Little pool? he asked plaintively. He loved his grandparents inflatable paddling pool. We didnt understand his distress. Later we learned that Lacy had thought he should move to the big swimming pool, so she had taken little pool away without explanation.
We were furious! Mainly because of the arbitrary way she did it. And right after admitting he was such a reasonable child. She loved Rowan, she sang songs with him and danced with him, she kissed and hugged him, she was a superb grandmother, but she felt that a primary thing was to learn obedience.
And she voted Republican.
Now hold on! How did politics get into this?
Because a current liberal guru says that the deepest differences between conservatives and liberals arise from our incompatible views of human nature. George Lakoff, in Moral Politics: how Liberals and Conservatives think (2002), argues that these differences show up nowhere so strongly as in the way we raise our children. The way we do that then forms the basic set of metaphors by which we decide what is politically moral or immoral.
Lakoff says the strict father family system leads to the unforgiving reward-and-punishment politics of conservatism. The goal is independence and strength, but the result is a pathology: a constituency that doesnt want to empathise with the poor and oppressed, invest in social capital and nurturance, teach rational questioning, or see the successful man as embedded in nature and interdependent with others. To create an inclusive society of rational thinkers that is sustainable in nature, you need the nurturant parent system.
Lakoff argues that modern American politics arises from these parenting models. It is an idea that, my better-read friends tell me, interestingly parallels the argument of the French demographer Emmanuel Todd (in his book The Explanation of Ideology) about the relationship between family structure and political allegiance across Europe.
Raising a child in America, I can believe that Lakoff is on to something. My parents-in-law came to appreciate that their daughter was not out of her mind, their grandson was turning into a fine young man. Gutsy, loving, vital Lacy fell prey to a neurological disease that slowly weakened and killed her. Before that took hold, she had seemed to be acquiring new ideas from her two liberal daughters. Given more time, I think she would have understood how it could be that her offspring were OK, despite their following the wrong rules, and questioning what she held to be true.
Given enough time, I think a good part of middle America will discover which parenting style works best to create independent, thoughtful, loving, respectful adults. And that will change American politics. I think Lakoff may be right. I dont know that theres a quicker way.
Sure, a charismatic candidate, a rising liberal religious movement, and reaction at Republican excesses could swing an election or two to the Democrats. But a government truly based on respect, inclusion, nurturance, hearing the point of view of the poor and marginalised: that will take much, much more.