The Dual Role of Parents:
Providing Nurture and Structure

Have you ever wondered:

Am I being loving and attentive enough?  OR  Am I being too giving?

Are my children becoming spoiled?  Am I too strict?  OR  Am I too lenient?  What is a good balance?


These questions point to the two broad categories into which the role of parents can be divided: 

  • the “nurture” role
  • the “structure” role

All the responsibilities of parenting fall under one of these two headings.


The Nurture Role

Nuturing heart

In the nurture role, you take care of your children’s basic needs, such as food, medical care, shelter, clothing, etc., as well as give love, attention, understanding, acceptance, time, and support.

You listen to your children, are patient, and have fun with them. You make time for your kids, show an interest in them and their activities, and encourage them to pursue their passions. Through your words and actions, you communicate to your children that they are loved and accepted.

When you are in the nurturing role, you enjoy and accept your children as they are and do not expect any change in behavior.


The benefits of the Nurture Role

When you are nurturing, your children:

  • feel good about themselves.

  • feel lovable and worthy of being cared for.

  • feel listened to – learn their ideas, feelings, and needs are important – and feel that they are understood.

  • become trusting because they know that their needs will be met.

  • learn that they can tackle difficult situations and face challenges because they do not have to face them alone – you will be there to support them.

  • are able to give back to other people through the emotional support they are given from you. This builds their ability to empathize with others.

It is through loving and supportive early parent-child relationships that the foundations for future healthy relationships are formed.  Being valued just for whom they are helps to build your children’s self-esteem. 

This is a very important part of your parenting job.  It is this role that many people know intuitively is critical for their children’s healthy development.


How much nurture to give?

The amount of parental care and involvement needs to be weighed on a scale, as shown below. 

  • When you give too much nurture, you may be overly protective, too responsive to your children’s needs, and too involved in their lives.

    Under these conditions, children don’t learn skills to care for themselves and they don’t learn to consider other people’s needs.

  • Conversely, when you aren’t nurturing enough, you are too emotionally distant and not adequately involved in your children’s lives.

    As a result, children don’t feel loved or supported and they don’t learn to trust other people.

Too much or too little nurture


The Structure Role

Boy running through finish lineThe other part of your job as a parent is to provide “structure” for your children. In this role, you give direction, impose rules, use discipline, set limits, establish and follow through with consequences, hold your children accountable for their behavior, and teach values.

You provide the guidance that helps your children to change, grow, and mature. Responsible behavior, in line with your children’s maturity levels, is taught and expected.

In the structure role, you expect change in behavior and increased growth, maturity, and ability.


The benefits of the Structure Role

When providing structure, your children:

  • feel a sense of safety that rules will be in place when they can’t control their own impulses – you will be there to stop them, guide them, and be in-charge of their well-being.

  • learn to tolerate a reasonable amount of frustration and disappointment when they don’t always get their own way.

  • discover that the world does not revolve totally around them.  As a result, they become less egocentric.

  • learn responsible behavior and that they are capable of doing things.

  • learn from their mistakes.

  • gain experience making decisions.

  • become more self-sufficient and capable as they learn the skills to become independent.

  • internalize your rules and values.

Often parents have more difficulty carrying out this function in a healthy way.  Yet it is vitally important to your children’s development that you discipline them, teach them, guide them, provide rules and follow through on the rules, and set reasonable expectations for their behavior.

You do not have to be mean as you set limits.

For example, if you sit down with your child to set a schedule for extra-curricular activities, you are providing guidance.  If you have your son read three pages of a book aloud to practice his reading skills which his teacher has said are below grade level, you would be providing structure. 

It may still be a warm and loving interaction, but your goal is to help your child grow and acquire new skills; therefore, you are providing structure.

By holding children to standards and helping them to achieve success, you help them to feel capable and thereby build their self-esteem.


How much structure to give?

Just like with the Nurture Role, the Structure Role exists on a scale as shown below.

  • When you provide too much structure, you may be rigid and use harsh discipline; children don’t learn to think for themselves, and they may either become passive or they might rebel.

  • When you give too little structure, your expectations and rules may be unclear and inconsistent. Children may feel confused; they don’t feel that they will be protected; and they don’t learn to be responsible because they are not held accountable for their behaviors.

Balance between too much and too little structure


Finding the Balance between Nurture and Structure

In addition to finding a place on each of these two scales that avoids the extremes of providing too much or too little caring or control, you also have to find a balance between how and when to nurture your children and how and when to provide structure.

In order for children to thrive and develop in a healthy way, they need you to carry out both of these roles.  The balance between the two roles that you achieve has an impact.

  • If you only provide the nurture piece without any structure or limits or without holding children accountable, your children can become spoiled, unappreciative, self-centered, and not learn how to do things for themselves. 

    These are hallmarks of an “over-indulged” child. Your children may mistake your kindness for weakness and not view you as a source of support.

  • If you only provide the structure piece without building a strong relationship of trust, your children may feel resentful, unloved, abandoned, and may be less likely to cooperate willingly with the rules or to internalize them.

    Fearing punishment, children may try to fly under the radar and hide their mistakes and vulnerabilities from you.  You will miss opportunities to influence your children’s behaviors and choices.

Balance between nurture and structure

Your children need you to provide both nurture and structure.  As you interact with your children, consciously decide if you need to provide more love and attention or if you need to provide more structure and guidance.


Let’s say your child just threw a ball in the house and broke a picture frame.  Your first instinct may be to discipline him.  However, if he is physically hurt or scared, you may decide that you need to be nurturing first and calm your child down before you discuss the need to clean up the broken glass and why you have a rule against ball-playing in the house to begin with.

Conversely, your daughter may be very angry at her brother who once again borrowed her school supplies and failed to put them back.  This is an on-going complaint and you understand your daughter’s frustration.  However, her hitting her brother is unacceptable and you may need to enforce the rule of “no hitting” before you help her deal with her strong feelings.


There are not any hard and fast rules about when you should be nurturing or when you should use structure. You may make one decision in one situation with one child and make a different choice at another time.  It is the overall balance that is important and that impacts your children’s development –  not your choice at any one time.

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The Impact of Your Childhood

It can be helpful to step back and think about your own childhood.

  • How well did your parents balance the roles of nurture and structure?

  • How does this compare to your own parenting preference?

Often, if people were raised in an overly structured environment with very strict and rigid discipline in place, they may find themselves shying away from such parenting with their own children and leaning too heavily on the nurturing side of things.

And while it can feel better in the short-run for you to be the “nice guy,” it does not usually pan out for you or your children in the long-run.


For example, after a long, hot, and exhausting summer day, your children ask you to take them out for ice cream.  All you want to do is sit in a nice cool room; but being a “nice” parent, you agree and head out to the ice cream parlor.

In return for your generosity, you expect the least your kids could do is not fight with one another or grumble at you when you tell them to turn off the TV and take a shower. 

But they do fight with one another and you.  You may become resentful – after all, you went out of your way to be “nice.” 

What is wrong with them? At this point you may “blow up” and become that overly aggressive parent that you were trying so hard to avoid being in the first place.


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It can also be helpful to think about what preferences you and any co-parents have toward providing more nurture or more structure. This is often influenced by how each of you were raised.

It is typical for parents to move in different directions over time in response to the other parent’s approach.  Here is how this can work:


Parent Nurture naturally leans toward being more nurturing, while Parent Structure is inclined toward providing structure.

Over time, Parent Structure may think Parent Nurture has been too easy on the child and that the child is not listening to requests, is acting spoiled, and sporting an “attitude.”  As a result, Parent Structure lays down the law and tells the child he is expected to follow the rules. 

Parent Nurture thinks Parent Structure is too harsh and not understanding of the child.  In order to help the child feel better, Parent Nurture goes easier on the child when they are together.  Parent Structure, seeing no improvement in behavior, becomes even stricter.  Parent Nurture becomes even more lax with fewer requirements on the child. 

This can continue until one parent becomes the sole disciplinarian and the other is the sole nurturer.

This set-up is not in the best interest of you, your child or your co-parent. It sets up power struggles between parents and can enable your children to manipulate you. 

While each parent may have their natural tendencies toward the nurture or structure side of things, ideally, both you and your co-parent will be able to comfort your child and provide guidance.  

Striking such a healthy balance is a challenge and contributes to making parenting an art rather than a science.


In Summary

While the times to be nurturing and the times to provide structure will vary based on the child, the circumstances, and the parents, it helps to take a step back and consciously decide in any particular situation which role will best help your child grow and learn – the nurture role or the structure role.

In general, it is a mixture of both involvement and control that will help your children acquire the internal resources they will need to succeed.

It is really an exhausting, complicated, yet rewarding job to parent your children and satisfy their very important needs!

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For more information about discipline check out the following books. Purchasing books from our website through supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Growing Up Again by Jean Illsley Clark Kids Are Worth It by Barbara Coloroso Kids Can Cooperate by Elizabeth Crary Kids, Parents and Power Struggles by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

<recommended books about discipline

<all our recommended parenting books


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