Researchers have confirmed what we already know: Parents who endorse a more authoritarian parenting style towards their toddlers are more likely to have children who are ideologically conservative when they reach age 18; parents who support more egalitarian parenting are more likely to have children who grow up to be liberal.
Parents: Do you find yourselves arguing with your adult children over who deserves to win the upcoming election? Does it confuse and frustrate you to realize your political viewpoints are so different?
Newly published research suggests you may only have yourself to blame.
Providing the best evidence yet to back up a decades-old theory, researchers writing in the journal Psychological Science report a link between a mother’s attitude toward parenting and the political ideology her child eventually adopts. In short, authoritarian parents are more prone to produce conservatives, while those who gave their kids more latitude are more likely to produce liberals.
This dynamic was theorized as early as 1950. But until now, almost all the research supporting it has been based on retrospective reports, with parents assessing their child-rearing attitudes in hindsight.
This new study, by a team led by psychologist R. Chris Fraley of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, begins with new mothers describing their intentions and approach in 1991, and ends with a survey of their children 18 years later. In between, it features an assessment of the child’s temperament at age 4.
The study looked at roughly 700 American children and their parents, who were recruited for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. When each child was one month old, his or her mother completed a 30-item questionnaire designed to reveal her approach to parenting.
Those who strongly agreed with such statements as “the most important thing to teach children is absolute obedience to whoever is in authority” were categorized as holding authoritarian parenting attitudes. Those who robustly endorsed such sentiments as “children should be allowed to disagree with their parents” were categorized as holding egalitarian parenting attitudes.
When their kids were 54 months old, the mothers assessed their child’s temperament by answering 80 questions about their behavior. The children were evaluated for such traits as shyness, restlessness, attentional focusing (determined by their ability to follow directions and complete tasks) and fear.
Finally, at age 18, the youngsters completed a 28-item survey measuring their political attitudes on a liberal-to-conservative scale.
“Parents who endorsed more authoritarian parenting attitudes when their children were one month old were more likely to have children who were conservative in their ideologies at age 18,” the researchers report. “Parents who endorsed more egalitarian parenting attitudes were more likely to have children who were liberal.”
Temperament at age 4—which, of course, was very likely impacted by those parenting styles—was also associated with later ideological leanings.