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Party-training: Parents' influence on children's political attitudes is powerful

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Kayla Bunge
October 24, 2008
— For young voters, sometimes it’s not the issues that guide choices at the polls.

It’s Mom and Dad.


Research shows that children tend to share their parents’ political attitudes—at least while they’re all still living under the same roof, said UW-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin.


“Kids really do pick up a lot of things from their parents, whether they want to or not,” he said. “People often don’t understand just how much influence parents have on their kids.”


Sarah Nieuwenhuis, 17, said she relies on her parents for her political knowledge.


“Whenever there’s something I don’t understand, I ask about it,” she said. “I usually just sit and listen to what they have to say.”


Her parents, Mel and Peggy Nieuwenhuis, said the political discussions in their Delavan home usually are faith-based: Where do the candidates stand on abortion, the death penalty and gay rights?


“We want our kids to take what we’re teaching them about our Christian faith and apply it,” Peggy said.


“We want them to form their own opinions,” Mel said. “We tell them to hold their knowledge up to their beliefs and see where they match up and don’t match up.”


Political divides

Of course, not all children are in political agreement with their parents.


Fraternal twins Emily and Patrick Johnson, 18, said politics is a hot topic at their Delavan house, sparking nightly debates about the economy, education and health care.


“Usually, one parent is for one candidate, and the other one is for the other candidate,” Emily said. “So we usually hear both sides.”


That is until the last few elections, when their parents, Jeff and Julie, began supporting the same candidate.


“They’ll tell us something, and we’ll listen, but me and my sister are always digging deeper to find the real answers,” Patrick said.


Their parents said the ongoing (friendly) debate is healthy: it makes for well-educated voters, they said.


“It’s easy to be apathetic,” Julie said. “I’m proud they’re taking advantage of the opportunity to be informed and then to go vote.”


Forming opinions

Political scientists call the process by which people acquire their political attitudes “political socialization.”


Among the most powerful factors in the development of those attitudes—what political scientists call “agents of socialization”—are family, school, friends, media, religion and basic demographics, such as age, gender, race, socioeconomic status and geographic location.


Franklin said people begin forming their basic political attitudes early in childhood, making parents the foremost players in their children’s political socialization.


By the end of the high school years, there’s a “high point of agreement” between parents and children, he said.


But during the college years, children who no longer live with their parents are “pretty malleable,” subject to influence from peers, the media and current events and issues, Franklin said.


People’s political attitudes are “more stable if not firm” by the time they reach the end of their 20s, he said.


“By that time, young people have had a fair amount of time to shift away from their parents or more toward their parents,” Franklin said.


Informed decisions

For both the Nieuwenhuises and the Johnsons, it seems voting is more important than which candidate their children support.


Jeff Johnson said his family didn’t really talk about politics when he was growing up. But when he became eligible to vote, he felt compelled to go to the polls, seeing it as a right and a privilege. Now as a parent, it’s a sentiment he’s tried to impress upon his children.


“I’ve always said, ‘I don’t care who you vote for. I just want you to vote—and be an informed voter,’” he said.


Peggy Nieuwenhuis said that when she was a child her family rarely talked about politics, but her mother was a poll worker. She learned from a young age the importance of participating in the political process, she said.


“The key for my involvement was that (my parents) were always involved,” she said. “They didn’t tell us what to do, but they told us to be involved—to be involved and to be informed.”


Both families said they are “impressed” that their children and other young voters seem to have an increased interest in politics.


Children get much of their information in the classroom

The group of seniors in Adam Alter’s social studies class at Delavan-Darien High School discussed party platforms, analyzed campaign advertisements and compared the presidential candidates’ plans for the country.


It seems only appropriate with just two weeks left before the Nov. 4 election, with a number of issues that affect young people on the table and with a sizeable chunk of the class eligible to vote.


But while schools can play an important role in the political socialization of children, this classroom is a neutral zone.


“If you were to ask any student what my opinion is on either candidate, they wouldn’t be able to tell you,” Alter said. “I pride myself on staying neutral.”


He said it’s not the place of a teacher to impress an opinion upon his or her students.


“I try and make (the class) as fair as possible to each point of view,” Alter said. “We can talk about any topic, and I want them to see both sides of it and then make choices on their own.”


Why is learning about politics important for high-school students?


Alter says it’s simple.


“It’s your future that you’re voting on,” he said. “It affects you so much in terms of who you choose to lead.”


But it’s not just the presidential election that’s important, Alter said.


Local elections have much more of an impact, he said. Senators and representatives, mayors and city council members and other state and municipal leaders make the laws by which young people must abide.


Alter acknowledged that because local elections don’t receive the attention that presidential elections do, the race for the White House is a good place to start educating high-school students about the political process.


He said he encourages his students to take the information they learn in his classroom and use it—whether or not that means they discuss politics at home with their parents.


“I don’t discourage it, but I don’t preach it either,” Alter said. “I want them to make up their own mind as opposed to just going with their parents’ thoughts.”



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