How Family Communication Can Influence Our Political Identities

Imagine a family -- two parents, two children -- at the dinner table. They are discussing the issues of the day, and learning from each other as each person expresses a viewpoint. Now think of an identical family, but this one discourages open discussion in favor of discipline and deference to the parents at the dinner table. Could simple differences like these affect our political identities?

It turns out that yes, they do. Forty years ago, two scholars identified communication as a centrally important component in the family environment, and that -- over and above individual styles -- these communication patterns influence political attitudes and behaviors. Jack McLeod and Steven Chaffee identified two dimensions on which families tended to communicate -- either open, issue-oriented, and expressive or obedient and deferential to parents. This research was so influential, it is not only an important component of research on how children are socialized into a political world, but serves as a framework for how family scholars examine the effects of family dynamics.

When I teach this topic to undergraduates, many are surprised to discover that how their families communicated with each other has an effect on their political attitudes and behaviors. But it turns out that being raised in a more pluralistic environment, where ideas and discussion are encouraged, is associated with political interest, knowledge, discussion, and activity. In other words, the patterns of communication your family utilized--whether they talked specifically about government or not -- can have an influence on how you identify with politics.

But how exactly do we become socialized into democracy? It can't just be the way our parents talk to us, right? Because we are obviously not "born" into democracy -- or any other form of governing -- we are also socialized into our political environments through school, peers, and the media. What research suggests is that each of these agents plays an important role in shaping our political identities, but it is the family that appears to trump the others. Indeed, the greatest amount of influence in the political socialization process occurs within the family, and the most long-lasting influence of the family is party affiliation. Interestingly, this effect plays a role on the parents too--the longer a couple stays together, the more similar their political beliefs become. Children, too, can influence their parents through school programs like "Kids Voting" or other curricular activities, by bringing politics into home environments where there may have been none.

By an early age, we develop specific beliefs about authority and learn to understand the importance of political symbols, like the American flag. By the time a child is five, he or she has some understanding of the president, political parties, and ideologies. When I survey my students about their and their parents' party affiliations, I often find these effects to be surprisingly strong. Consistently, students report identifying with the same party and ideology as their parents, even if they have differing opinions on certain issues. Yet research shows that there are some demographic factors that influence this relationship; children from homes with more educated parents and higher socioeconomic backgrounds tend to be more politically interested and participatory.

So what is the lesson from this body of research? It suggests that children will benefit from parents who actively communicate about politics with their children, just as they do other aspects of their family lives. Family communication patterns that involve parents encouraging children to express political opinions are usually better oriented toward public affairs. (This dimension is called "concept orientation"). The opposite dimension that McLeod and Chaffee identified is "socio-orientation," where parents stress the importance of deference and ensure social harmony by insisting that children give in on arguments that might offend others. As a result, we have seen that children from more socio-oriented families tend to be less critical of information and are exposed to less disagreement at home and in the media. Some of these children experience conflicting messages, which results in low levels of political knowledge. But in families that encourage open communication and ideas, we see the highest levels of news use, discussion, critical thinking, and political knowledge (with some exceptions, namely when families engage in socio-orientation as well).

An election year is the perfect time to think about what influence our own family communication patterns have had on our political orientations and behaviors, as well as those of our children. There are of course variations to the effect and nature of these patterns, but the evidence suggests the family does play an important role. Sometimes, reflecting on these patterns can enlighten our perspectives and solidify viewpoints and opinions. And sometimes, the family communication patterns your parents encouraged have nothing to do with your political attitudes. But knowing the roots of our political identities can help us better understand our own political attitudes and behaviors.