Study Suggests Political Indoctrination May Backfire

I recently came upon this in the Atlantic:

[M]any 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.

Needless to say, my interest was piqued.

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.

I haven’t looked at the study itself, and science reporting is often dismal, but presuming the study is accurate its findings would explain so much about my own experience. I grew up in a very political home, and once I left home I continued to hold a passion for politics. But even as I continued to talk politics, I suddenly found myself exposed new viewpoints I had not heard before—or at least, viewpoints I had only previously heard in caricature. I ultimately switched viewpoints on a large number of political issues.

“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.”

Thank you, sir child psychologist, for so accurately reading what happened to me and what I saw happen to so many others like me. That really was the issue—did I value my own independence enough to be willing to place the parental relationship at risk? Was I willing to buck their dichotomy and risk the consequences? Clearly, my answer was “yes,” but it wasn’t an answer I made lightly.

I do have some questions about this study, though. First, I’m unclear whether they’re looking at what happened to children of parents with extreme religious views (on whatever side) or what happened to children who grew up in families where politics was a constant topic of conversation. Are they perhaps assuming the two are one and the same? It may be that they usually are, but I can see a family with less partisan political views still being very political. Second, the article focuses on children leaving home and continuing to engage in political conversations but being exposed to new viewpoints as the mechanism for change. But what if they aren’t exposed to new viewpoints upon adulthood because they never had their exposure limited growing up, and thus already had exposure to opposing viewpoints?

Perhaps the issue is holding extreme beliefs. Perhaps the issue is being black and white. Perhaps the issue is tying parental love to political affiliation. But none of these things are explicitly stated in the mechanism presented, which is what I’m unclear on.

Regardless, this has me thinking about my own children. Sean and I are both political, but both of us are committed to letting Sally and Bobby form their own political beliefs. As part of that, we hope to expose them to a wide range of viewpoints and ideas. We won’t hide other views from them and we won’t treat other views only as caricatures. I am fully aware that that means that Sally might become a libertarian or Bobby might become a Republican. I don’t make political affiliation a litmus test for family love, so I’m okay with that.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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