- Nurture is the support children need to grow and thrive, and structure acts as a guide rail that keeps children safe and secure.
- Balancing nurture and structure is essential to a child's development.
- Parents who struggle to balance nurture and structure can find support from friends, family, online resources, or professional help.
A highway is an excellent metaphor for your parenting journey. It begins by driving down the highway. It is a long and winding road starting with conception, and from there on, it never stops. By keeping your vehicle in the highway's center lanes, your children grow and thrive to be the individuals you hope they become.
The Front Tires Are on Nurture. The Rear Tires Are on the Structure
Your car needs to be in tip-top condition with a reliable set of tires in the front and the back. The front tires should be soft. That's the nurturing side of parenting. While the back tires should be firm, that's the structure side of parenting.
Nurture is the support children need to grow and thrive.
Nurture is the name of all the ways we care for others and ourselves. Children must be nurtured, or they do not survive. They must have food, clothing, protection, touch, recognition, and love (Clarke et al., 2014).
Structure acts as a guide rail that keeps children safe and secure.
Structure is the firm side, the "how to" of care...Reasonable rules that are consistently enforced, mastery of skills, and learning family values are all part of firm structure (Clarke et al., 2014).
Two Middle Lanes With a Shoulder and a Ditch on Each Side
Staying in the middle lanes as you cruise down the developmental highway is the best course of action. Parents are driving down the middle of the road when they provide their children with food, shelter, clothing, education, and love, along with non-negotiable and negotiable rules.
Stay off the Shoulders and Out of the Ditches
If you get drowsy or lose focus while driving down the developmental highway, you may roll onto the shoulder of overindulgence and criticism. If you hear and feel the rumble strips, pay attention; correct the course onto the middle lanes. Some common rumble strips parents experience are excessive anger, unreasonable expectations, unreasonable control, fighting, overprotection, and lack of boundaries.
However, we sometimes slide into the ditch even after hearing the rumble strips. Not good.
The Nurture Side of the Developmental Highway
There are two middle lanes on the nurture side of the developmental highway; assertive care and supportive care. On either side of these two lanes are a shoulder and a ditch. The right shoulder is overindulgence. The left shoulder is conditional care. Each shoulder butts up against a ditch; the right ditch is parental neglect, while the left ditch is parental abuse.
The Middle Lanes of the Nurture Side of the Road
- Assertive care recognizes the child's needs. It is helpful, responsive to the child's needs, and appropriate to the situation, freely giving love, comfort, and support. It includes food, shelter, clothing, education, and love.
- Supportive care recognizes the child's needs. It is the type of care the child is free to accept or reject. It offers help and cares when it is okay for the child to say no. It encourages children to think on their own and do for themselves what they are capable of doing.
The Two Shoulders of the Nurture Side of the Road
- Overindulgence is a sticky, patronizing kind of care. It promotes dependence on the parent. It teaches the child not to think independently and not to be responsible for themself and others.
- Conditional care requires the child to earn care. The child is required to pay for it in some way. Care is based on the parent's needs and expectations, not the child's.
The Two Ditches of the Nurture Side of the Road
- Parental neglect is passive abuse. It is the lack of emotional or physical stimulation and recognition by parents. They are unavailable. They ignore the needs of the child.
- Parental abuse involves assaulting the child physically or psychologically. Abuse sends a "don't be" message to the child. It negates the child's needs.
The Structure Side of the Developmental Highway
There are two middle lanes on the structure side of the developmental highway; negotiable rules and nonnegotiable rules. On either side of these two lanes are a shoulder and a ditch. The right shoulder is marshmallow. The left shoulder is criticism. Each shoulder butts up against a ditch; the right ditch is parental abandonment, while the left ditch is parental rigidity.
The Middle Lanes of the Structure Side of the Road
- Negotiable rules teach children how to think clearly and solve problems. These are rules that are negotiated. The negotiating process gives children an opportunity to discuss, argue, and debate the relevancy of rules. They use data upon which to formulate decisions. It helps them become more responsible for themselves.
- Nonnegotiable rules are rules that must be followed. Children count on these rules to put order in their lives. These rules provide safety and security. Even though nonnegotiable rules are firmly set and firmly enforced, they are not "rigid" and can be rewritten for the welfare of the family and its members.
The Two Shoulders of the Structure Side of the Road
- Marshmallow parenting grants freedom without expecting responsibility in return. It sounds supportive but implies the child does not have to or is incapable of following the rules.
- Criticism uses bad names to label the child rather than setting standards for acceptable behavior. Words like "always" and "never" are often included with criticism. Ridicule is a devastating form of criticism.
The Ditches of the Structure Side of the Road
- Parental abandonment consists of a lack of rules, protection, and contact. It signals to the child that parents are unavailable. They are not there for them. Maccoby and Martin (1983) refer to this as the uninvolved parent. One who is absent, uninterested, and self-absorbed with no boundaries.
- Parental rigidity springs from fear and is supposedly for the child's welfare. Rigidity threatens abuse or withdrawal of love to enforce compliance. This type of parent is called authoritarian by Baumrind (1966). One who is strict, inflexible, has rigid rules, and is emotionally distant.
We Have All Driven on the Shoulders and Into The Ditch
After living in Minnesota and Wisconsin for almost 50 years, I hardly know a single person who hasn't heard those rumble strips on the shoulder or slid into a ditch at least once. Sometimes you lose control, and it just happens. When this occurs, you need help. You need a tow to get you out.
Remember, whether you are a beginning driver or a seasoned professional, there are times you need help and support. When you slide into the ditch, you can find resources; friends, family, online resources, or professional help that can tow you back to the center lanes. Parenting in the center lanes takes a lot of practice and support.
And as the old Fred Astaire song goes:
Don't lose your confidence if you slip,
Be grateful for a pleasant trip,
And pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
Start all over again.
Practice Aloha. Do all things with love, grace, and gratitude.
© 2023 David J. Bredehoft
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Baumrind, D. (1966). Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior. Child Development, 37(4), 887-907.
Baumrind, D. (1991). The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence, 11(1), 56-95.
Clarke, J. I., & Dawson, C. (1998). Growing up again: Parenting ourselves, parenting our children, 2nd Ed. Center City, MN: Hazelton.
Clarke, J. I., Dawson, C., Bredehoft, D. J. (2014). How much is too much? Raising likeable, responsible, respectful children - from toddlers to teens - in an age of overindulgence. NY: Da Capo Lifelong press.
Maccoby, E. E., & Martin, J. A. (1983). Socialization in the context of the family: Parent–child interaction. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.) & E. M. Hetherington (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 4. Socialization, personality, and social development (4th ed., pp. 1-101). New York: Wiley.