PITTSBURGH — Being a “helicopter” or “free-range explorer” parent may determine the direction of America’s political future. A new study finds a person’s parenting style can influence whether their child grows up to become a conservative or a liberal.
A team from Carnegie Mellon University found that the two main philosophies for raising children lead to very different outcomes, which can even predict that child’s voting habits and feelings regarding education, elder care, and medicine. Overall, the team found that helicopter parenting (or being a disciplinarian) leads to children leaning more conservative in the future. Meanwhile, free-range explorer parenting (or being a nurturing mom or dad) leads to children growing up to be more liberal.
“There’s a new dimension of parenting philosophy that has emerged [in recent decades] — free-range vs. helicopter parenting,” says Danny Oppenheimer, professor of social and decision sciences in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, in a university release. “If the [helicopter parenting] trend continues, we can expect people to endorse greater intervention in personal liberty in most social institutions.”
What is helicopter parenting?
During the study, Oppenheimer and his colleague Christian Lindke focused on the concept of helicopter parenting, which they describe as “a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children.” On the other hand, free-range parenting is generally the opposite extreme in terms of parenting styles. To compare them, researchers conducted three separate experiments.
The first asked 99 participants 19 questions to identify the factors which influence their acceptance of policies which impact liberty or autonomy. Nearly half of these individuals had children.
“I was surprised how these results cut across political parties,” says Lindke, a PhD candidate at the Center for Social Innovation at the University of California-Riverside. “Each party crosses the paternalism line depending on the issue being asked.”
In the second study, the team worked with 150 people, trying to find the causal link between parenting styles and policy preferences. During the experiment, the team manipulated the content in a newspaper to either slant for, against, or stay neutral on certain topics. However, the team could not find a definitive link.
Finally, researchers gathered 1,650 people, with 60 percent being parents. The results of this test confirmed their results from the first experiment. Moreover, the paternalistic approach expanded beyond government policy and also reflected their beliefs regarding medicine, education, business, peer-relationships, religion, athletics, and caregiving.
How does parenting impact politics?
“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,” Oppenheimer says. “We can even predict how middle-aged people will treat our aging parents in regards to autonomy, which has implications for geriatric health.”
The researchers say that previous studies have found helicopter parenting to be a detriment to a child’s development. Those reports argue that overprotective parents reduce their child’s levels of autonomy, student engagement, and satisfaction with life. Regardless of those findings, the team says this parenting style is actually becoming more and more popular with parents.
“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,” Oppenheimer concludes. “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.”
The findings appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.