When it comes to politics, conventional wisdom says that kids tend to mimic their parents. The research would seem to reinforce this widespread view: A 2005 Gallup Poll found that 7 in 10 teenage respondents kept roughly the same social and political beliefs as Mom and Dad, and similar research has found that absorbing your parents' views early on strongly influences your political leanings as an adult.
Not so fast, says a new study published in the December issue of the American Sociological Review. The study draws from surveys of thousands of American to find that, actually, most young Americans don’t just blindly absorb and regurgitate their parents’ political beliefs at the polls. Instead, more than half of respondents either rejected their parents’ beliefs outright or failed to even correctly identify their parents’ political affiliations.
The study relied on a 1988 survey of more than 8,500 families and a longitudinal survey taken between 2006 and 2008 of more than 3,000 families. The longitudinal study found that 51 percent of respondents rejected or misperceived their mothers' political affiliation; a slightly larger percentage of respondents rejected their fathers’ beliefs in that study.
So how could past research have gotten it so wrong? Other studies had looked at shared party affiliations, but not necessarily the reasoning that led the person to those affiliations, says Christopher Ojeda, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stanford Center for American Democracy and first author on the study.* “We never even thought to really question whether transmission would even be occurring most of the time,” Ojeda says. “But once we started looking under the hood, we discovered that the story was a little more complex.”
The new study interrogated other factors that led children to hold certain political beliefs. For instance, conventional wisdom holds that the higher the level of political discussion in the household, the more that those political beliefs get transmitted from parent to child. What Ojeda found was more nuanced: Discussion helped children understand their parents’ beliefs, but didn’t necessarily lead to adoption. “We found that discussion could lead to consensus as much as it could lead to conflict,” Ojeda said.
One of the more fascinating results of the study was that about 12 to 15 percent of respondents misperceived their parents’ party identification and then chose the opposite of that mistaken identity, ending up with the same beliefs as their parents when they thought otherwise. (In other words: Resistance is futile. One way or another, you are going to become your mom.) Around 22 percent, meanwhile, misunderstood their parents’ party identification and embraced that misperceived identity.
So what can conscientious, politically minded parents learn about raising their kids from this study? “It’s a back-and-forth between parent and child,” Ojeda said. “The child is bringing their own perspective and values and whatnot to politics. The child is not merely a receptacle for the parent to fill up with their values.”
“Transmission is not automatic,” Ojeda added. “You can’t just assume your kid is going to be like-minded with you.”
*Correction, Nov. 19, 2015: This post initially misidentified Christopher Ojeda as a Ph.D. student.