Hovering Parenting Style May Predict Political Views

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Hovering Parenting Style May Predict Political Views

Jim Windell

            In recent years, two broad parenting styles have been identified: helicopter parenting and free-range parenting.

            According to MPA member Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., who was quoted in 2019 in Parents magazine, helicopter parenting refers to "a style of parents who are overly focused on their children. They typically take too much responsibility for their children's experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures.”  Dr. Daitch is the director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders and author of Anxiety Disorders: The Go-To Guide.

            On the other hand, free-range parenting involves granting children independence for certain tasks – like walking to school alone – based on maturity level and skill set. Some parents think free-range parenting helps instill confidence and character in children, others are not so sure. Some, according to another Parents magazine article in 2019, regard it as a form of neglect.

            However, a new study out of Carnegie Mellon University has found a person's parenting style suggests how they feel about government policies across a wide range of social issues, including education, elder care and medicine. The results of the study were recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

            The author of the study, Danny Oppenheimer, professor of social and decision sciences in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, based his study on previous work by George Philip Lakoff, who examined a "government as family" theory. The government as family approach suggests that a person's belief on how government should function is strongly correlated to their personal belief on how families should function. In the U.S., this concept translates into two parenting approaches; conservatives lean toward the moral "strict father" model (helicopter parenting) and liberals lean toward the "nurturing parent" model (free-range parenting).

           In the most recent study, Oppenheimer and his colleague Christian Lindke, a Ph.D. candidate at the Center for Social Innovation at the University of California, Riverside, focused on the concept of the helicopter parent. Their working definition is a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children. Free-range parenting was viewed as falling on the opposite extreme of the helicopter parenting style. The team conducted three studies to evaluate the role of parenting style on policy implications.

           In the first study, the researchers asked 99 participants, nearly half with children, 19 questions to identify factors that influence acceptance of paternalistic policies. To the researchers' surprise, parenting approach was the best predictor for paternalistic policy adoption, more so than political ideology, political party identity and other demographics.

           “I was surprised how these results cut across political parties, commented Lindke, first author on this study. “Each party crosses the paternalism line depending on the issue being asked.”

           Lakoff's model would suggest that if the parenting metaphor holds it should be causal for political attitude. In the second study, Oppenheimer and his team worked with 150 participants to identify a causal link between parenting style and policy approach. They manipulated the content in the same newspaper article (pro, con and neutral) to evaluate participants' responses. The team could not confirm that parenting approach led to policy preference.

           Finally, the team assembled a larger group of participants (1,650) for the third study of which almost 60% had children. The results of the third study confirmed the findings of the first study. In addition, they found the paternalistic approach expanded beyond governmental policies to include medicine, education, business, peer-relationships, religion, athletics and caregiving.

           According to Lindke, it may be possible to activate a person's paternalism when presented a particular policy, but it is difficult to shift a person's attitude with regard to paternalism.

           “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,” said Oppenheimer. “We can even predict how middle-aged people will treat our aging parents in regards to autonomy, which has implications for geriatric health.”

           Previous studies have found helicopter parenting is detrimental to children, reducing the level of autonomy, student engagement levels and satisfaction with life. Despite these negative implications, the style of helicopter parenting is on the rise.

           “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,” said Oppenheimer. “But if being helicoptered has similar effects on adults as kids, we would expect to see heightened metal health problems and lower self-efficacy across society at large.”

           To read the latest study, find it with this reference:

Lindke, C.A. & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2022). Hovering at the polls: Do helicopter parents prefer paternalistic political policies? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. DOI: 10.1037/xge0001251




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