Does Strict Parenting Create Republican Children?

Family Matters on 10.30.12
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Photo: DonkeyHotey/Creative Commons

Last week, I lamented that the Presidential debates teach our children some bad lessons about the importance of truth, and the best ways to get ahead in the world. At the time, I aimed my critique at both sides - noting that despite my own partisan preferences, I have to admit that my own "team" has been bending the truth more than I would like too.

But all that talk of politics and parenting got me thinking about something else - how does our parenting style influence the views, allegiances and ultimate voting habits of our little ones? Now new research from psychological scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign claims to offer some insights into this specific question. 

Looking at data from 708 children who originally participated in the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development’s (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), R. Chris Fraley and colleagues explored how children's temperament and parental discipline styles correlated with the political allegiances of these same children once they turned eighteen:

Consistent with theory from political psychology, Fraley and colleagues found that children with authoritarian parents were more likely to have conservative attitudes at age 18, even after accounting for their gender, ethnic background, cognitive functioning, and socioeconomic status. Children who had parents with egalitarian parenting attitudes, on the other hand, were more likely to hold liberal attitudes as young adults.

In terms of temperament, children with higher levels of fearfulness at 54 months were more likely to be conservative at age 18, while children with higher levels of activity or restlessness and higher levels of attentional focusing were more likely to espouse liberal values at that age.

It might be tempting for a liberal like me to jump on references to fear-based decision making and conservatism, but let's not be too hasty to jump to conclusions when it comes to causality. As always with research like this (remember those "surprising" studies on teen masturbation), it's important to look at the context of what is - and what is not - being asked. 

In this instance, for example, the studies seem to account for gender, ethnic background, socioeconomic status etc. But what is not mentioned is one small factor - namely the political allegiances of the parents. After all, parents of all sides have been known to pressure their children regarding the political choices they make. From anecdotal evidence in my own social circles, at least, I would also argue that conservative parents tend to follow a stricter approach to discipline, while liberal parents may be more inclined to advocate "freerange parenting" and/or letting teens explore their own boundaries when it comes to sex, alcohol or drugs, for example.

I am no social scientist, but causation and correlation are not the same thing. Indeed, it's worth noting that while the media has focused on headlines like Are You Conservative Or Liberal? Your Parents May Be to Blame, the press release from the journal itself talks about parenting styles and temperament "predicting" future voting patterns, not causing them. Just because conservative eighteen-year-olds were brought up in stricter households does not mean the "parenting style" created their political beliefs, nor that liberal teens vote Barack Obama because their Moms let them smoke weed or let their boy/girlfriend stay over (yes, I am resorting to gross stereotype here). It seems more likely, to me at least, that both sides vote how they vote because it reflects the political views they grew up around. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a child to brainwash. (Before I let her out to go party.)

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