Distrust of children in political life is probably as old as the idea of democracy itself.
Plato pondered how the ideal city might create citizens by overcoming the influences of childhood. In The Republic, he advises that ruler-philosophers should wipe clean the tablet of child dispositions.
William Golding’s allegory Lord of the Flies represents perhaps the 20th century’s most memorable evocation of what might happen if adolescents were allowed to govern themselves. Currently, the imagery of teenage activism as undisciplined and irresponsible seems to resonate with the “gateway drug” analogy. Just as marijuana is acknowledged as relatively benign in moderation, youth political expression is seen as not in itself immediately harmful. The concern is that it could lead to anti-civic dispositions such as political narcissism, divisive identity politics, moral relativism, and disrespect for authority.
Still, the incivility that degrades American politics today is rooted, at least in part, in the failure of families and schools to cultivate deliberative dispositions through the habitual discussion of contested issues. Mindful political parenting is rarely discussed in U.S. popular culture, policymaking, and educational reform. While activists emphasize “the civic mission of schools,” there is no parallel campaign to raise awareness about the civic mission of parents. Understandably, the last thing many school districts want to do is to rouse parents. Teachers in many communities risk professional suicide by opening up classrooms for discussion about contested issues.
Low expectations for parenting are also evident in political science, where scholars describe family influence as haphazard and unintentional. If political child-rearing occurs at all, it is portrayed as partisan rather than civic, as parents guard the family’s ideological allegiance in communities increasingly fragmented into homogeneous clusters.
A dysfunctional relationship between parents and schools is not inevitable when it comes to civic education and the flow of ideas across classrooms and living rooms. Between 1880 and World War I, public schools sought to educate both immigrant children and their parents to ensure a cohesive civic culture. The historian Richard Hofstadter noted that foreign-born children exposed to Yankee schoolmarms “were expected to become instruments of Americanization by bringing home in the afternoon instructions in conduct and hygiene that their parents would take to heart.”
In the current era, parents and schools must work together to contribute to the civic development of youths. As agents of political socialization, they are at least partly to blame for the dismal voter turnout of young people in the 2014 midterm elections. The overall voter turnout for those elections was the lowest since 1940, and while turnout for young voters held steady, only 1 in 5 of the young adults eligible to vote in 2014 did so.
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In my research, I have found political parenting to be more reactive than proactive. Often, parents need some kind of wake-up call, such as a daughter bringing up controversial topics discussed in school, to become engaged. I characterize this scenario as developmental provocation, whereby youths’ political engagement accounts for parents’ realization that child-rearing extends to the civic realm. A sports analogy may capture the dynamic. In basketball, a give-and-go is a move in which the player with the ball passes to a teammate and repositions herself for a return pass. In developmental provocation, a son or daughter signals interest in politics, prompting a parenting response. The act of giving—the showing of youth expertise—is rewarded by a parent, who returns the favor by coaxing further political development at some point in the future.
While colleagues and I had previously documented the “trickle-up influence” of high school students on parents in low-income and Hispanic-immigrant families, our most recent research is unique in modeling parenting as a dependent variable—as an outcome of, rather than a stimulus to, family interaction.
Our results suggest possibilities for reform of civic education based on the premise that teachers, students, and parents are partners in exchanges of opinion and knowledge that bridge the school and family as training grounds for deliberative citizenship. We have documented how open climates for classroom discussion contribute to more open climates in families, and vice versa.
While activists emphasize 'the civic mission of schools,' there is no parallel campaign to raise awareness about the civic mission of parents.
There is no better way to ensure that adults will be defensive and uncomfortable with political discussion than to extract politics from civic education. As the political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse observe, K-12 students “are taught the civics but not the barbarics of democratic processes.” Conflict-avoidant pedagogy thereby ensures a conflict-avoidant citizenry unable and unwilling to cope with the demands of deliberative democracy in an increasingly pluralistic culture. I suspect that apprehension of youthful political impulses is in some respects a projection of adult fears, a desire to externalize agonistic instincts, so that they can be controlled (through schooling) as opposed to acknowledged.
Not every parent approves of a teenager who comes home from school bursting with opinions and eager for combat. This is particularly the case in low-income homes, where more authoritarian parenting is common. Many sons and daughters persist, and if parents want to retain a leadership role in the political arena, they must educate themselves by paying attention to news media, while also demonstrating some skill in the give-and-take of political expression. While many parents might not have benefited from opportunities to discuss politics in their own childhoods, their children provide them with a second chance at citizenship.
Beyond the classroom, parents must make the effort to keep up with the interests and social-media proficiency of young people as they leave childhood behind and begin to track the discourse and discord of politics. At a focus group in northern Colorado, Hispanic youths recalled receiving and forwarding text messages that featured the globe-trotting PBS children’s heroine Dora the Explorer with a black eye. The image circulated widely online in response to Arizona’s immigration law, which requires police to stop and question people if officers suspect they are in the country illegally. Infrequent use of social media by parents, however, may have precluded viral messaging from engaging families in discussion. One student in the focus group responded this way to a question about parents’ computer skills:
Discussion leader: Do they all know how to use the computer?
Student: I don’t let them.
The exchange brings to mind teen angst at the sight of parents wandering around a school dance. Too much is at stake, though, for parents to let moments of political interest pass. To my mind, a silent home is worse than a house divided.
Several recommendations emerge from our studies. First, high schools should incorporate civics modules that allow students to express a wide range of views on salient issues that are important to them.
Parents should be tolerant of rigorous debate at school. They should support, rather than threaten, teachers who enliven classrooms with discussions about immigration, the Dream Act, global warming, the militarization of community police, and other controversial topics.
Curricular modules should be designed to activate both proactive and reflective parenting. For example, teenagers could role-play as reporters to interview parents about their history of voting.
Finally, this nation needs a Civic Parenting Day. We need something on the calendar to remind parents that deliberative democracy relies on schools, but also on the family, to ensure civic virtue and political engagement.