Critical thinking is encouraged by many educators, yet one of the most difficult forms of critical thinking is to go beyond analyzing personal values and assumptions and actually call into question a fundamental way of thinking. The tradition of thought we have inherited from the ancient Greeks, which is probably based on mathematical reasoning, emphasizes impeccable logic, carefully divided categories, and absolute truths. It laid the foundation for science as we know it. However, some feminist philosophers have suggested that this form of thinking, which has come to be associated with masculinity, is flawed. They propose a new form of thinking, which Ruddick (1990) calls maternal thinking.

Maternal thinking is potentially gender neutral; it derives from the labor of caregiving, which is traditionally the primary responsibility of women (Ruddick, 238). This way of thinking is based on everyday caregiving, leading to better understanding of social contexts and practicality (Ruddick, 237). It is more focused on meeting needs than on predicting and controlling one's environment, and it emphasizes careful attention in order to ascertain others' needs (Ruddick, 239), as well as sacrificing personal desires to obtain these goals (246). Maternal thinking also emphasizes the value of human life, because a woman who has borne children has a special knowledge of the cost of creating that life (Schreiner, as cited in Ruddick, 231).

As this article will demonstrate, current evidence from neuroscience, psychology, and other social sciences supports the concept of maternal thinking and its tremendous possibilities. Perhaps most importantly, maternal thinking leads to a kind of national security that is deeper and more profound than simply keeping the borders secure.

Scientific Evidence for Maternal Thinking

Maternity in rats has been extensively studied. Mother rats have better memories, learn faster, find food in mazes faster, and are more likely to explore than virgin rats of the same age (Kinsley & Lambert, 2006). Some neurological evidence suggests that similar patterns are true for other animals and in humans, for both fathers and mothers (Kinsley & Lambert, 2006). This suggests that giving birth and raising children triggers specific neurological changes that enhance the brain. One author, in a review of the scientific literature, found that mothers have better skills with senses and perceiving information, multitasking, dealing with stress, being motivated, and interacting with others (Ellison, 2005). Fathers experience some of the same benefits, suggesting that parenting in general—not just hormonal changes after childbirth—has a long-lasting impact on a person's neurology and psychology.

Because the work of caregiving is centered on meeting needs, we would expect mothers to be practical and focused on meeting actual needs, instead of creating theoretically sound but realistically unhelpful programs. Rosato and others found that thousands of women, when asked about the importance of various problems, emphasized the ones with realistic solutions (as cited in Malterud, 2006). Another study seemed to show that, on average, women have more relational wisdom than men (Ardelt, 2009). Although caregivers experience deficits in attention while under stress (Mackenzie, Smith, Hasher, Leach, & Behl, 2007), one study of caregivers of dementia patients found that the stress of caregiving resulted in personal growth and increased cognitive complexity for the caregiver (Leipold, Schacke, & Zank, 2008).

All of these studies demonstrate benefits from maternal thinking—a form of thinking that is centered around providing the safety of being cared for, the safety of having someone to trust. The capacity of our brains to make practical decisions within a context of great complexity appears to be enhanced by the practice of maternal care. We often think of motherhood as a mindless task, but apparently the brain of a mother is expanding its capabilities, not contracting them.

The Social Impact of Maternal Thinking

The evidence supports the existence of maternal thinking, but what are its effects? One finding that supports both the existence and the benefits of maternal thinking indicates that society benefits more from educating young women than from educating young men (Coleman, 2004). Girls' education has a more powerful effect on alleviating poverty and on the health of their families than boys' education does (Herz & Sperling, 2004; Bellew, Raney, & Subbarao, 1994). Lawrence Summers, who was the chief economist of the World Bank at the time, wrote, “Investment in girls' education may well be the highest return investment available in the developing world” (as cited in Murphy, Belmonte, & Nelson, 2009). Maternal thinking is a powerful force that reaches every part of society, including economics.

Maternal thinking can also benefit scientific research, by emphasizing what one researcher described the pragmatic validity of a scientific finding (Kvale, 1994), which is the usefulness or applicability of that knowledge. This differs from traditional, Greek definitions of validity, which emphasize theoretical consistency and precise measurements with little regard for practical considerations. The term “pragmatic validity” is a way of adapting the traditional vocabulary to point out the need for practical (maternal) thinking.

In this text, Malterud (2006) could be describing maternal thinking as well as pragmatic validity:

Pragmatic validity does not dismiss basic science when theories and methods are developed, but offers a complementary perspective that emphasises the consequences of the knowledge. Appraisal of pragmatic validity is especially important for clinical knowledge, research into community action, and public-health issues...

The perspectives and experiences of lay people are at the same time both overlapping and different from the perspectives and experiences of professionals. Indeed, confirmation of a problem by lay people may be valuable to ensure that policymakers recognise its importance. But when change is the ultimate goal, lay knowledge is most powerful when it differs from and challenges the views taken for granted by professionals or policymakers. The wisdom of the rural Malawian women appears when their statements challenge what is already known from before...

We also know that facts and truths can be ambiguous, even sometimes contradictory, depending on the source of knowledge or the position of the knower. Until recently, medical knowledge has been synonymous with expert knowledge. But expert knowledge also runs the risks of becoming self-affirmative, maintaining stereotyped positions and attitudes. Furthermore, expert knowledge cannot be expected to cover insider experience, and may therefore be insufficient for understanding complex human and social phenomena. Research drawing on the wisdom of lay people, striving for a high level of pragmatic validity while maintaining the basic standards of scientific studies, can make a difference.

Pragmatic validity ensures that science is applied properly within a particular social context and that the most important subjects receive the most attention.

This practical knowledge is part of maternal thinking, and it is necessary for any type of project. For example, a development worker once told of a well-designed restroom facility designed for a poorer culture. They built the facility and left. They came back a few years later to find the facility unused. Why? Upon actually communicating with the people who lived there, the development agency discovered a tradition that relieving oneself released evil spirits. The people believed it would be dangerous to relieve all their evil spirits into one place, so they never used their nice bathroom. A little practical communication would have saved a lot of time and money.

In one study, Rosato and others asked many women about the importance of problems in maternal health. The women responded pragmatically, rather than theoretically, ranking as most important the problems that could be solved, while severe but difficult-to-solve problems (like finding a cure for AIDS) were ranked as less important (as cited in Malterud, 2006). In general, men and women make somewhat different decisions in public policy and in families, which also supports a different way of thinking by those who are responsible for caregiving. Women are more likely to oppose war than men are (Hunt & Posa, 2001). Also, female politicians are slightly more likely to focus on diplomacy, health, and human rights than men are, and they are slightly less likely to focus on trade and military (Crossette, 2000), which suggests a greater focus on the safety of being cared for than the safety of killing the enemy. Many researchers also note that women devote a much higher percentage of their income to the health and well-being of their families than men do (Coleman, 2004).

One of the most important applications of this maternal pragmatism is that women may make excellent military leaders. In fact, mothers may have an extra advantage because they have more experience in considering the practical, the pragmatic, and the realistic. This goes against the conventional wisdom that women are too “soft” to lead an army. Likewise, in spite of traditions stating that a woman's place is in the home, mothers and other caregivers may be especially well-qualified for community leadership and other highly practical responsibilities.

Of all the beneficial aspects of maternal thinking, there is one in particular that comes more easily to mothers than to any other caregivers. Like an adolescent who pays the price for his own vehicle, a mother has a special knowledge of the value of life because of the price she paid to create that life. Olive Schreiner wrote, “No woman who is a woman says of a human body, 'it is nothing'... on this point, and on this point almost alone, the knowledge of woman, simply as woman, is superior to that of man; she knows the history of human flesh; she knows its cost; he does not” (as cited in Ruddick, 1990, 231). Mothers, when compared with fathers or any other group, have the greatest motivation to prevent war and create peace.

Another important difference between maternal thinking and traditional logic is that traditional logic breaks things into categories—often artificially. This can result in a false dichotomization that encourages conflict. War requires that one create a division between the good guys and the bad guys, between “us” and “them” (Ruddick, 1990, 234). This kind of categorization can be useful, but it can also be very harmful. We need the ability to see the connections between disparate matters, to see things in a holistic way, in addition to the analytic style that we are trained in because of the heritage of the ancient Greeks.

Maternal thinking places much less emphasis on distinction into categories; instead, it places more emphasis on relationships and social context (Ruddick, 1990, 237). David (2008), with a National Commission on Infant Mortality, found that some areas have higher infant mortality even though they have exactly the same medical resources and practices. Instead of medical care, complex and harmful social factors were contributing to infant mortality—harmful relationships hurt the unborn child's health. These kinds of complex factors cannot be perfectly categorized, quantified, analyzed, predicted, and controlled. They require human intervention.

Religious Evidence and Implications

The second verse of “As Sisters in Zion” expresses the need for human intervention beautifully (Woodmansee):

The errand of angels is given to women;
And this is a gift that, as sisters, we claim:
To do whatsoever is gentle and human,
To cheer and to bless in humanity’s name.

Everybody has personal and private needs and desires that can only be met by maternal thinking—by paying attention, by caring, by sacrificing one's own wishes for the needs of someone else (Ruddick, 1990, 246). In most cultures, a guy is socialized to be tough, rather than show or fulfill a need for the safety of love, which is probably why it is called “maternal” thinking instead of “parental” thinking. However, in Latter-day Saint doctrine, the Lord openly requires men to focus on loving and nurturing more than on predicting and controlling. “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (D&C 121:41).

Jesus Christ is the perfect example of maternal thinking. Therefore, men are capable of developing this set of skills. It is likely that men who develop maternal thinking will bring some of the same contributions to the table that women already do. It is also likely that men will need to learn from women in order to achieve this high standard. Even Jesus—the God of the whole earth—had Mary's example.

I find it interesting that, in the scriptures, the Lord is much more liberal with promises of comfort to His people than promises of physical protection. The ultimate promise is not being transformed into an unbeatable superhero; the ultimate promise of the gospel is a secure, loving, personal relationship with God. In the words of Jesus, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Likewise, Nephi wrote, “And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God” (1 Ne. 11:25).

Every person who wants to think like God would be wise to pray for caregiving opportunities—in whatever form they may come—so that they may learn to do what actually brings joy and security to those they love. When the prophet Jacob spoke about the return of the Jews to Israel, he said, “Yea, the kings of the Gentiles shall be nursing fathers unto them [the Jews], and their queens shall become nursing mothers; wherefore, the promises of the Lord are great unto the Gentiles, for he hath spoken it, and who can dispute?” (2 Nephi 10:9). God promises that the greatest men and women will be great nurturers: “nursing fathers and mothers.” Indeed, given the evidence and implications of caregiving-based thinking, who can dispute? Truly, it is more blessed to give than to receive.


Scientific, social, and religious evidence all strongly support maternal thinking. This kind of thinking is applicable to a variety of circumstances, leading to a safer and more secure society. Why? Because national security doesn't just mean keeping the bad guys out. It means feeling at home, feeling safe, feeling loved. To feel secure, people need to have relationships with those that they trust, who understand them, and who will look out for them. Basic needs and social justice must be attended to. While this emotional security is less viable in cases of physical danger, it is even more important in such times. A practical, attentive mind, one that watches children play and learn and cry day after day–the maternal mind–is more likely to understand these needs.



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Full Citation for this Article: Davison, Michael Reed (2012) "Maternal Thinking: Evidence and Implications," SquareTwo, Vol. 5 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/SqArticleDavisonMaternalThinking.html, [get access].

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