When Parenting Style Predicts Political Leanings
A new study finds parenting styles are a strong indicator for how people think about a wide range of social issues, from education to elder care.
By Stacy Kish
Your parenting style — helicopter parenting (disciplinarian) versus free-range explorer (nurturing) — may be a key to the country’s political future. A new study out of Carnegie Mellon University has found a person’s parenting style tips their hand to the adoption of future government policies across a wide range of social issues, including education, elder care and medicine. The results are available in the June issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
“There's a new dimension of parenting philosophy that has emerged [in recent decades] — free-range vs. helicopter parenting,” said Danny Oppenheimer, professor of social and decision sciences in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and contributing author on the paper. “If the [helicopter parenting] trend continues, we can expect people to endorse greater intervention in personal liberty in most social institutions.”
Oppenheimer based his study on previous work by George Philip Lakoff, who examined a ‘government as family’ theory. This approach suggests that a person’s belief on how government should function is strongly correlated to their personal belief on how families should function. In the United States, this concept translates into two approaches – conservatives lean toward the moral ‘strict father’ model and liberals lean toward the ‘nurturing parent’ model.
In this work, Oppenheimer and his colleague Christian Lindke focused on the concept of the ‘helicopter parent,’ which has been defined as ‘a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children.’ ‘Free-range parenting’ falls on the opposite extreme to this parenting style. The team conducted three studies to evaluate the role of parenting style on policy implications.
In the first study, the researchers asked 99 participants, nearly half with children, 19 questions to identify factors that influence acceptance of paternalistic policies. To the researchers’ surprise, parenting approach was the best predictor for paternalistic policy adoption, more so than political ideology, political party identity and other demographics.
“I was surprised how these results cut across political parties,” said Lindke, a PhD candidate at the Center for Social Innovation at the University of California, Riverside and first author on the study. “Each party crosses the paternalism line depending on the issue being asked.”
Lakoff’s model would suggest that if the parenting metaphor holds it should be causal for political attitude. In the second study, Oppenheimer and his team worked with 150 participants to identify a causal link between parenting style and policy approach. They manipulated the content in the same newspaper article (pro, con and neutral) to evaluate participants’ responses. The team could not confirm that parenting approach led to policy preference.
Finally, the team assembled a larger group of participants (1,650) for the third study of which almost 60% had children. The results of the third study confirmed the findings of the first study. In addition, they found the paternalistic approach expanded beyond governmental policies to include medicine, education, business, peer-relationships, religion, athletics and care-giving.
According to Lindke, it may be possible to activate a person’s paternalism when presented a particular policy, but it is difficult to shift a person’s attitude with regard to paternalism.
“By knowing people's preferences for helicopter parenting, we can predict people's views on autonomy vs. coercion in business, religion, sports, peer-relationships, medicine, politics,” said Oppenheimer. “We can even predict how middle-aged people will treat our aging parents in regards to autonomy, which has implications for geriatric health.”
Previous studies have found helicopter parenting is detrimental to children, reducing the level of autonomy, student engagement levels and satisfaction with life. Despite these negative implications, the style of helicopter parenting is on the rise.
“I don't want to become alarmist, because we really don't know whether the effects on children would be the same as the effects on citizens,” said Oppenheimer. “But if being helicoptered has similar effects on adults as kids, we would expect to see heightened mental health problems and lower self-efficacy across society at large.”
Oppenheimer and Lindke worked together on the study, titled “Hovering at the polls: Do helicopter parents prefer paternalistic political policies?”