When the topic of presidential politics comes up, my youngest daughter, who’s 8, will sometimes ask, “Mommy, what are we?”
I often chuckle because technically “we’re” nothing. (As journalists, my husband and I are not registered with any political party.)
What I tend to do, when she asks, is say “we” support people who care about the same issues that we do and then I mention what those issues are. I’m not sure how much of this is really registering but my sense is she’ll grow up knowing what issues we believe in and who we vote for, and will likely follow a similar path.
But maybe not, based on the findings of a new study, which challenges conventional wisdom and decades of research supporting the belief that most children adopt their parent’s party identification. The study, which appears in the December issue of the American Sociological Review, found that more than half of all children in the United States either incorrectly identify or reject their parents’ party affiliation.
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“Our study is important because it recognizes that children have a say in determining their own (political) identities,” said Christopher Ojeda, the first author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar in the Stanford Center for American Democracy at Stanford University, in an email interview. “They think through the information and values that parents attempt to pass on to them.”
The study is based on data from two large surveys: a 1988 survey of more than 8,600 families, which considered child-mother and child-father relationships, and 2006 and 2008 surveys of nearly 3,400 families, which looked at child-mother relationships. The ages of “children” ranged from 16 to 82, with some responding during adolescence and others during young adulthood and adulthood. In the surveys, parents and their children shared with researchers their party identification and children reported their perception of their parents’ party affiliation.
In all cases, the majority of children incorrectly perceived or rejected their parents’ party affiliations. In the survey that looked at child-mother and child-father relationships, 53.5% of children misperceived or rejected their mother’s political party affiliation, and 54.2% did the same when it came to their father’s political party, the study found.
Does talking about politics impact children?
Discussion in a household about politics made it more likely the child would correctly perceive their parents’ party identification, but it did not affect whether they chose to adopt or reject their parents’ party.
“The reason for this is that parent-child communication is a vehicle for delivering information, but it does not always deliver agreement,” said Ojeda. “As we all know, political discussions can sometimes lead to consensus and they can sometimes lead to conflict.”
While Laura Beyer, a mom of two grown children in West Allis, Wisconsin, says she never really discussed politics with her girls, they’re still not necessarily following her lead.
“I support Trump and my daughter simply does not,” said Beyer, who blogs for her local newspaper. “Now that she’s 24, she has her mind set on anyone but him.”
Sue Scheff, a parenting advocate and author, believes in prior generations — before the Internet, social media and political shows such as “The Daily Show,” children were often only given information that their parents were “spoon feeding” them.
Her father was born and raised in a Democratic household, and that’s all he knew and believed in, she said. The same was true for her mother, who grew up in a Republican household. Her parents never pressured her in either direction, but not so for her parents’ parents.
“Our grandparents made it clear what party they wanted us to align with,” said Scheff, author of “Wit’s End: Advice and Resources for Saving Your Out-of-Control Teen.” As for her own kids, she describes them as “polar opposites;” one isn’t interested in politics at all and the other follows it very closely as an independent, while Scheff leans more to the left.
“I believe it’s because of their friends, environment, beliefs, as well as social media in all forms,” she said. “It’s no longer what parents are preaching. Kids today have their own sense of social wisdom. They are receiving more information at a faster rate than we ever did as children, teens or young adults.”
‘I’m not radical enough for her’
While parents like Scheff and Beyer were not surprised to hear about a study that shows that children don’t necessarily take on the political views of their parents, some parents I reached out to via email were. Tracey Koch, a mom of two, ages 12 and 16, in Lewiston, Idaho, describes herself and her husband as “extremely liberal in an extremely conservative state.”
She said she would be shocked if her sons rejected their party affiliation. “They have not shown signs of that. They are voicing beliefs that (are) the same as me and my husband. The only thing that I can think is that they would go independent. If both parties get too rigid and too polarizing … then I could imagine my sons going with a moderate independent philosophy.”
Buzz Bishop, a father of two in Calgary, Alberta, and founder of the blog Dad Camp, believes it’s never too early to talk to children about issues, explain the political process and give them tools to make up their minds, which is why he takes his kids to vote and took his younger son, who’s 5, to the final pre-election rally of Justin Trudeau, the new Prime Minister of Canada.
He also said he would be very surprised if his kids ever swing to the right and away from his left-leaning views. “I believe my kids share my party affiliation because they’re empathetic, caring souls,” he said. “I lean to the left, as do they, just in the way they accept people and are encouraged to care for the planet and the environment.”
Lori Day says she has talked with her daughter Charlotte about politics and world events since she was very young. She always knew her parents were Democrats, said Day, who’s also an educational psychologist and author of “Her Next Chapter,” a book on mother-daughter book clubs. And while Charlotte did go through the “Ayn Rand libertarian phase” during adolescence, she is a “leftist” now, says Day.
“I’m not upset that my daughter, now 23, has rejected my ‘liberal’ views that accept capitalism in any form,” she said. “Apparently, I’m not radical enough for her, and that’s OK by me!”
Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns, and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.