Some political policies, such as a sugar-tax, can be described as 'paternalistic' meaning that they treat the population as children and the government as a parent that 'knows what's best for them'.

Note that this term isn't necessarily disparaging. I personally would describe a sugar tax as a paternalistic policy, and I also support them.

But paternal typically relates to 'being a father' rather than 'being a parent/being a caregiver'.

Is there an alternative word that means the same thing in a political context?

There is 'nanny-state', but this is typically always used to disparage such a policy, I'm looking for an objective, neutral term.

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    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 20:28

5 Answers 5


Parental. I suppose. It falls in between maternal and paternal.

  • Nice suggestion. Please could you add a definition from a dictionary? Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 9:05

Paternalism and its derivatives are well established technical terms of political/social/legal philosophy. People who use them in debates rarely think about their etymology; the gender-specificity of their origins normally plays no role in their choosing to use them. One uses these terms because one intends to defend some position on the issues that have already been framed by using these terms, in the extensive existing literature on that topic. That can be accomplished much more effectively if one uses the already established terminology.

There is no established synonym for paternalism in the literature. Of course, if one feels very strongly that paternalism should be avoided because of its gender-specificity, one can invent some new term, such as parentalism. However, if one wishes for one's arguments about 'parentalism' to be understood as contributions to the existing debates, one would need to say explicitly something like 'by parentalism I mean what other people mean by paternalism'. Chances are, though, that even with such an explanation, one would be imposing on one's readers the burden of 'translating' the newly introduced term as the old term they know, and that this would distract them from appreciating whatever argument one is otherwise trying to make. If one insisted on using such a term, one would be sacrificing the clarity and the impact of one's substantive contribution to the debate, for the sake of promoting a terminological innovation.

Incidentally, it should be noted that the origins of the term paternalism are tied not simply to the role of fathers (as opposed to mothers) in childraising, but specifically to their role in certain traditional, authoritarian methods of bringing up children. There would be something incongruous about creating a new, gender-neutral term for a concept that hearkens back to a different era.


I took the noun “progenitor”, and tried to make a new adjective of it, with “progenitoristic” but then @MattE.Эллен told me there already was one, and gave me permission to use it. So, for the record:


which Merriam-Webster defines, merely as:

of or relating to a progenitor : ANCESTRAL

Not really quite right, in that it lacks the sense of “acting like” a progenitor, and only gives the impression of “being” a progenitor.

But, ask a silly question...

  • Progenitorial already exists. No need for a new coinage. Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 14:05
  • @MattE.Эллен — Oh the shame of it! Where can I hide? What can I do? I know, steal your answer! Hope you won’t mind.
    – David
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 16:20
  • by all means, be my guest. Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 16:52


I don’t think the word exists, but I would use “parentalistic”. Just replace the “paternal” in “paternalistic” with “parental”. Similar to what you do with “maternalistic”.

  • ELU deals only with researchable usages, not suggested new candidate terms. Commented Nov 23, 2020 at 15:03

Perhaps Avuncular.

Avuncular (əvʌŋkjʊləʳ) adjective [usually ADJECTIVE noun]: An avuncular man or a man with avuncular behaviour is friendly and helpful towards someone younger.

[Collins English dictionary]

  • 1
    A gender neutral uncle? Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 16:36
  • 1
    An avuncular policy would be practically the opposite of a paternalistic one.
    – choster
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 16:42
  • @choster ... so the stereotype is that fathers are strict with the kids and make them eat their vegetables, but uncles are lenient and sneak them out for ice cream.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 23:11

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