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Does parenting style shape children's future political leanings? Study suggests 'Yes'

young conservatives
REUTERS/Jim Young
The study found that the children of parents who expressed authoritarian attitudes toward parenting when the children were one month old were more likely to identify as conservative 18 years later.

The political views of 18-year-olds are influenced both by the childrearing practices of their parents and by their own childhood temperaments, suggest the findings of an intriguing (and bound to be controversial) new study.

Specifically, the study found that the children of parents who expressed authoritarian attitudes toward parenting (“Children should always obey their parents”) when the children were one month old were more likely to identify as conservative 18 years later. The children of parents who took a more egalitarian approach to parenting (“Children should be allowed to disagree with their parents”), on the other hand, were more likely to identify as liberal when they reached voting age.

The study also found that children whose temperaments exhibited higher levels of fearfulness at age 4 1/2 were more likely to become politically conservative, while those whose temperaments showed higher levels of activity and restlessness were more likely to become politically liberal.

The findings held even after the researchers controlled for such factors as gender, ethnic background and socioeconomic status.

The study, which was led by R. Chris Fraley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was published online this week in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Supporting earlier research

The study’s findings are not especially new. The past decade has seen a flurry of studies that have tried to identify the psychological factors that influence political beliefs and attitudes. Previous research has suggested, for example, that conservatives tend to be more respectful of authority, less open to new experiences and less tolerant of ambiguity than liberals. Other research has found that preschoolers who are more anxious, indecisive and guilt-prone are more likely to hold conservative views at age 23.

There’s also been plenty of research linking authoritarian beliefs about parenting with the development of right-wing political ideology. Studies suggest that individuals with such beliefs are more likely than liberals to say their parents established strict household rules and had little tolerance for children breaking those rules. Conservatives are also more likely to report that their parents restricted their activities and choice of friends during childhood.

Most of that research was conducted retrospectively, however. It relied on people recollecting how they and their parents behaved during their childhoods. Such remembrances can be inaccurate. This new study was prospective. It used data collected over 18 years from the families of 708 children who were recruited in 1991 to participate in the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.

Role of genetics unknown

Still, the study has several limitations, as Fraley and his colleagues acknowledge. “Our results are consistent with the view that authoritarian parenting practices and attitudes may promote the development of specific kinds of political values and ideologies in children,” they write. “Our results, however, do not speak to the specific mechanisms through which this occurs.”

Other researchers have suggested that genetic factors may play a role in political ideology. If that proves true, it might explain — perhaps more so than upbringing — why people tend to adhere to the same political leanings as their parents. Unfortunately, this new study did not collect data on the parents’ political beliefs so the researchers could not control for that factor when determining the effect of authoritarian or egalitarian parenting methods on whether the children grew up to be conservatives or liberals.

More research on this topic is sure to follow.

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