Two years ago, when I was pregnant with my third child, my oldest son had an offhand yet revealing conversation with my mom. It went something like this:
Four-year-old son: “Hey Gigi! Guess what? Did you know that Mommy has a baby in her tummy?”
My mom: “Yes, I did…Isn’t that amazing?”
Four-year-old son: “Yes! It is amazing!” Pause. “How did God and Obama do that?”
I would like to clarify two things right away. First, Obama was not involved, and did not collaborate with God, on the Wilhelm Baby Project. Second, my son did not pick up his concept of the president’s Zeus-like powers at home. This was learned, of course, at school—an innocent little preschool in Chicago’s northern suburbs where Barack Obama won the mock election in a landslide. (Only one brave kid and one teacher voted for poor old Mitt Romney—and the teacher only voted that way so the lone, budding Republican wouldn’t feel so alone in the world.)
This incident came to mind as I read about a recent study, “Why Does the Apple Fall Far from the Tree?,” recently published in the British Journal of Political Science. Subtitled “How Early Political Socialization Prompts Parent-Child Dissimilarity,” the report argues that children of strongly opinionated, indoctrinating parents are the most likely to rebel against those political views when they spread their wings and head off to college, get a job, or, as may increasingly be the case for members of the millennial generation, pad down the stairs to their new “garden apartment” that is actually their parents’ basement.
If, like some strongly opinionated Americans, you’re planning on raising a small army of clones, this news may come as a bit of a disappointment. But fear not, empire builders—when you look closer, the story gets a bit more complex.
Covering the study for The Atlantic, writer Te-Erika Patterson talked to parents from both sides of the aisle about their favored offspring brainwashing techniques. A conservative father, for instance, described how he works to deconstruct arguments with his kids, reveals to them how media bias works, and forces them to go to church while they’re under his roof. A couple from Florida, meanwhile, raising their kids to be “staunch liberals and atheists,” does so by refusing to shop at Wal-Mart, tossing around phrases like “goose-stepping Nazis”, and inspiring their daughter to ruin her kindergarten class’s Papa John’s pizza party “because the company’s CEO was reluctant to provide healthcare benefits to his employees.”
One of these parenting methods, as you may have noticed, is not like the other. The first, I would argue, seems to focus on teaching discipline and critical thinking. The latter appears to specialize in training kids to be jerks, or maybe, in the future, to be the very serious chairpersons of small-but-dedicated college campus activist groups fighting obscure forms of pretend oppression—or, perhaps most terrifying, those inexplicably angry drivers with “Coexist” bumper stickers who love to speed up and block you when you’re trying to switch lanes.
The “mechanism” of children falling away from their opinionated parents’ beliefs, writes Patterson in The Atlantic, 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.” Well, maybe. But if you lean conservative, and your child attends a public school, odds are they’ll be bombarded with buckets of cognitive dissonance far earlier than age 18. If they’re plugged into any sort of media—radio, TV, film, the Internet, video games—the impact will likely be amplified.
Interestingly, a similar study, which made the rounds in late 2012, insisted that opinionated parents have all the influence in the world when it came to shaping their children’s political leanings. Led by a University of Illinois psychology researcher and published in the journal Psychological Science, the study argued that more “authoritarian” parents generated conservative children, while more “egalitarian” parents shaped liberals.
Looking at these conflicting studies—and beyond that, simply taking a good look at parents and families you know—it becomes pretty clear that the key variable to producing like-minded kids isn’t how opinionated you are. Rather, it seems to be how obnoxious and overbearing you are in promoting your beliefs, and, most importantly, whether you promote critical thinking or not.
This last part is harder than it sounds, but here’s one way to start. When your kid draws a dog with a crayon, and tells you that it’s a stinky, ugly dog, and that he absolutely hates it, don’t say, “Oh, no! This is the most glorious dog I have ever seen! I want it framed!” Instead, ask him why he hates it. You might get an interesting answer, show that you’re actually listening, and get the bonus of encouraging the kid to think for himself. (Plus, let’s admit it—the dog picture just isn’t that good. It doesn’t even look like a dog.)
Here’s another tricky side to this whole thing: If you lean to the right politically, of course, you probably assume that the very act of critical thinking will lead one rightward. If you lean left, meanwhile, you probably assume the opposite—and, in some acute cases, you may not think about critical thinking at all.
Despite your best laid plans, children, as it is well known, can throw you for a loop. My own son of “God and Obama” fame, for instance, recently insisted to his teacher that my favorite thing to do was eat cereal while watching the Masters on TV. And while I admire the dulcet tones of golf announcer Jim Nantz as much as the next girl, I don’t think he has ever seen me eat cereal—or, now that I think about it, watch the Masters—in his entire life.
Perhaps we should seek some wisdom from Kahlil Gibran, who, along with authoring “The Prophet,” is, I recently learned, the third best-selling poet of all time. “Your children are not your children,” Gibran once wrote. “You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts…You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”
If you’re a dedicated child indoctrinator, I know what you’re thinking: “Whatever, Kahlil.” And while he may not be 100% right, maybe he’s on to something.
Perhaps holding on, in some cases, means letting go. It’s certain that the transmission of certain core values far surpasses the importance of passing on political affiliation. And, at the very least, if you fail at indoctrinating your children, there’s always an upside. You’ll definitely have interesting Thanksgiving dinners in your future. You can’t get into many feisty table arguments with an army of clones.
Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin, TX. Sign up to receive her columns at www.heatherwilhelm.com.