Do Children Just Take Their Parents' Political Beliefs? It's Not That Simple

A recent study shows that children who are raised to have strong beliefs are also more likely to rebel against those views as they age.
A child at an Occupy Wall Street protest in New York in October 2011 (Timothy Krause/Flickr)

It is widely believed that children will imitate their parents’ behaviors and attitudes—whether parents want them to or not. The 1961 Bobo Doll experiment, conducted by Stanford professor Albert Bandura, demonstrated that children will interact with others in the precise manner that was modeled for them by adults.

Given this responsibility, many parents try to instruct their children and impart their views, perhaps hoping their kids become carbon copies of themselves, or become the people they wish they were themselves.

For some parents, this quest takes on a missionary zeal: They work to indoctrinate their children with a designated political viewpoint from an early age, raising them to be young ideologues. But new research suggests trying to plant those seeds during potty training might actually be the fastest way to guarantee political rebellion later on.

Jennifer and Ryan Russon of Coral Springs, Florida, are two such parents who believe they can train their children to represent how the world should be. They are raising their son Maxwell, age 8, and daughter Anna, age 6, to become staunch liberals and atheists. Their family refuses to shop at Walmart because its owners are, according to Ryan, "goose-stepping Nazis.”

“Both kids already understand that the minimum wage needs to be raised,” Jennifer explains. “In fact, my son had to pick a president to do a report on in his third-grade class and wrote an essay about how being able to afford food is a basic human right—that this would be his first initiative were he POTUS.”

Under her parents’ influence, Anna fell out of favor with her conservative kindergarten teacher when she announced that she would not eat Papa John’s pizza during a class pizza party because the company’s CEO was reluctant to provide healthcare benefits to his employees.

“We make sure the kids know that just because daddy may make more money than somebody else that does not mean he is a harder worker or made better choices,” Jennifer explains. “Certainly this is sometimes the case, but it is not always the case. Feeling empathy and seeing the bigger picture is a big part of being liberal and I think we do a good job of impressing this on our kids.”

On the other side of the spectrum is John Wilder, a marriage and relationship coach in Jacksonville, Florida. He’s leaned conservative since working as a child: He noticed that earning his own way in life boosted his self-esteem. What really made the difference was when he became religious. Wilder became passionately pro-life. He formed a group called Christians for Life and led a movement that helped convince the Southern Baptist Convention to renounce its pro-choice stance.

When Wilder married and started his own family, he set out to ensure that his children were influenced by conservative ideals. He would often discuss current events and issues with them, explaining how the media had reported a slanted view of the issue, then patiently laying out the facts from his viewpoint. He says he was able to influence all three of his children with facts and logic instead of feelings.

“My son, when he was 16, thought he should be able to decide for himself whether or not he would go to church,” he recalls. “I explained to him that I agreed with him and when he moved out and was self-supporting, he could certainly make that decision for himself. Today as an adult he does not miss church.”

All three of Wilder’s children are conservative, have married conservatives, and are pro-life. He wishes more parents had followed his model.

“Children raised in a liberal home are often ruined for life,” Wilder says. “If we were to instill conservative values into our children we would stop rewarding young girls getting pregnant and going on the dole for the next 20 years and we would have a strong vibrant economy. We need to raise more conservatives in order to save the country.”

It’s understandable that parents with strong beliefs would feel it is their duty to see their children adopt those beliefs. But, however well-meaning these efforts are, they may be in vain. A study recently published in the British Journal of Political Science, based on data from the U.S. and U.K., found that parents who are insistent that their children adopt their political views inadvertently influence their children to abandon the belief once they become adults. The mechanism is perhaps surprising: Children who come from homes where politics is a frequent topic of discussion are more likely to talk about politics once they leave home, exposing them to new viewpoints—which they then adopt with surprising frequency.

The study, led by researcher Elias Dinas, also shows that these changes are especially likely to happen during the college years. Conservative culture warriors have warned for years that universities are outposts of liberal indoctrination—and the study seems to confirm at least some of that warning.

“Extreme parental views of the world give children a clear choice for being with the parents through agreement, or against parents through disagreement,” says Carl Pickhardt, an author and child psychologist. “Thus extremely rigid views of right/wrong, trust/distrust, love/hate can be embraced by children who want to stay connected to parents, and can be cast off by children who, for their own independence, are willing to place the parental relationship at risk.”

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Te-Erika Patterson is a writer based in Los Angeles and the creator of The Rebuild Your Life Project.

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