For decades, political scientists thought they knew how kids developed their political beliefs: They mimicked their parents.
After all, the data showed that most children end up having the same political leanings as their parents.
But the problem with this model is that it assumes children know what their parents' politics are — and that they usually accept those beliefs. This model didn't sit right with political scientist Christopher Ojeda because it didn't treat children as "independent and critical thinkers."
So he and fellow political scientist Peter K. Hatemi wanted to know more about this process — from the child's perspective. They researched what kids believe, what parents believe, and how the two interact.
What they found was that less than half of Americans accurately perceive their parents' political leanings and adopt those beliefs. And a lot of that process depends on the relationship between parent and child. For example, the more they discuss politics, the more easily the child can diagnose her parent’s political beliefs. But those discussions have little to do with whether the child adopts those beliefs. That's more dependent on whether the child feel supported and connected to her parent.
How are children actually making their decision?
The first thing the researchers did was find surveys that asked both parents and children about their politics. What they found was a 1988 survey called the Health and Lifestyles Study, as well as a late 2000s survey called the National Longitudinal Study of Youth.
These surveys asked adult children: What do you think your parent’s politics are? This was important because we can only make decisions based on what we think reality is.
First, Ojeda and Hatemi found that only two in three of these adult children could properly identify a parent’s party identification with the broad descriptions of Republican, independent, or Democrat.
And of that group, about one in four rejected their parent’s politics.
There were some kids who thought they were making a decision to disagree with their parent, but it turns out they didn't know their parent’s actual politics — so they ended up agreeing. The researchers said that's not actually transmission of political beliefs.
With that in mind, less than half the children knew what their parent’s politics were and chose to adopt them.
So what makes us more likely to know our parents' beliefs — and agree or disagree with them?
When the researchers dug more into the survey, they found that when a parent and child discussed politics more, the child could more accurately perceive her parent’s leanings.
But that had little to do with whether a child adopted those beliefs. Rather, if a child felt she was supported and connected to her parent, she was more likely to adopt what she thought her parent’s beliefs were.
So that leads to some interesting scenarios.
If you and your parents didn't talk much about politics, then you are less likely to know their actual leanings.
But if they provided strong social support, then you probably adopted what you thought to be their politics — even if that perception was wrong.
It's also possible you and parents didn't talk a lot about politics, so you don't know where they stand.
But if they didn't provide strong social support, then you are more likely to disagree with what you thought were their politics. So even though you don't know it, you might actually agree with them.
Parents are really, really bad at knowing what their kids believe
At the end of our conversation, Ojeda, one of the researchers, gave me a preview of some findings that have yet to be published but are a continuation of this line of research.
"Parents are especially bad at perceiving their children, especially compared to how children perceive their parents," he said, referring to research that added in data from the Youth-Parent Socialization Panel Study.
If you'll remember from above, about two in three children were able to accurately perceive a parent’s party identification. But only 42 percent of parents were able to do the same.
Ojeda said he's interested in looking further at whether technology has changed this relationship. But this indicates that when you're sitting around at Thanksgiving, you're probably wrong about which political party you assume your child identifies with.
This is good to keep in mind before having a talk
Exit polling shows that there's a big gap between how young people and older people voted:
So the most likely disagreement scenario is that the child voted for Hillary Clinton, while the parents voted for Donald Trump.
Some people are going to have this talk with their parents — one that involves telling them their fears about the Trump presidency. And the research tells us two things: One is that perceptions of parents’ politics might be wrong — that our assumptions might be misguided.
Second, it tells us that our relationship with our parents heavily affected where we ended up on the political spectrum — maybe not in the way we traditionally assumed, but in a way that takes into account more of the nuances of childhood and parenthood. It’s intimate and personal.
And perhaps that's a good basis for starting this conversation.