It would make sense to assume that children get a lot of their political sensibility from their parents. They grow up hearing their parents’ views and opinions on current events, and their musings on current political situations. A new study, though, found that over half of all children in the U.S. either misperceive or reject their parents’ political party affiliations.
“This finding turns the conventional wisdom, as well as years of political socialization research, on its head,” said Christopher Ojeda, the first author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar in the Stanford Center for American Democracy at Stanford University, in a press release. “The public, the media, and the academic world have long believed that children learn their political values, such as which party to support or which policy positions to endorse, from their parents.”
Ojeda said that this view depends on an assumption that children know and adopt their parents’ values, which the study found wasn’t the case.
The research relies on data from surveys that contain self-reported measures of party identification for both parents, and their adult children. It also included measures of children’s perceptions of their parents’ party affiliations, and measures of the relationship between parents and child. The first sample was the Health and Lifestyles Study (HLS), a survey of 8,636 families, and the second is the national Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY), which looked at 3,356 families.
In the NLSY sample set, which examined child-mother relationships, 51.2 percent of children rejected or misperceived their mothers’ political party identification. The results for the HLS sample, which looked at a child’s relationship to both the mother and father, were similar. For that group, 53.5 percent of children misunderstood or rejected their mothers’ political party affiliation, and 54.2 did so for their fathers’.
“Both datasets survey children in adolescence, young adulthood, and adulthood, thereby capturing the full range of the life course,” said Peter K. Hatemi, the corresponding author of the ASR study and a professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University.
The study authors also discovered that the more politics were discussed in the home, the likelihood that a child would correctly identify their parents’ party affiliations increased. It did not, however, increase the likelihood that they will adopt said affiliations.
“We were not surprised by this finding,” Ojeda said. “Parent-child communication is a vehicle for delivering information, but it does not always deliver agreement. As we all know, political discussions can sometimes lead to consensus and they can sometimes lead to conflict.”
Social support was something of a contrast — it didn’t have an effect on whether children actually knew their parents’ party identifications, but it did make them more likely to adopt the affiliations they ascribe to their parents.
Hatemi said social support doesn’t necessarily give someone accurate information, but it does create a sense of intimacy and belonging. It would make sense, then, that a child wanted to adopt their parents’ party affiliations.
The study as a whole, according to Ojeda, suggested that our information on parent-child similarities in party identification needs updating. Prior to this research, it was assumed that parents would pass on their political values to children.
“We demonstrate that this view is problematic because it treats children who accurately perceive and adopt their parents’ party affiliations the same as children who misperceive and reject their parents’ party identifications,” Ojeda said. “In both cases, the children have the same party affiliation as their parents. However, in order for true transmission to occur, children must actually know their parents’ political values and then choose to adopt them.”
The study highlights that children are not simply carbon copies of their parents, Hatemi said. They have their own say and political identities.
Source: Ojeda C, Hatemi P. Accounting for the Child in the Transmission of Party Identification. American Sociological Review. 2015.