From pull-ups to politics

Who has the most influence on your child's political identity? Photo via Flickr Commons/Warmsleepy's photostream

Guest post by Shawna Lacharite

Interest in the development of political and civic engagement increases when there are concerns about the younger generation’s commitment to the political system (Flanagan, 2003). Due to the issues surrounding weak voter turnout in the past, researchers are focusing their attention on perhaps an existing disparity among generations of voters. In other words, why are the newer generations showing different political behaviour than generations of the past? Is it because today’s youth is more ambivalent about politics or is it something more complex than that? Furthermore, how are these differences developed? Based on an extensive amount of research, the answer is social influence.

Scholars believe that invested knowledge in political structure is rooted in the influences surrounding a person at a very young age. Such influences can be the child’s parents, friends, or teachers. According to the literature, these three sets of influences are among the strongest in a person’s life, and therefore predict the extent to which they will become politically involved (Dostie-Goulet, 2009; Prior, 2008). In other words, habits formed at home, lessons learned in school, and opportunities offered by outside groups all positively influence the civic engagement of youth (Adolina, Jenkins, Zukin & Keeter, 2003).

Furthermore, politically interested people are more knowledgeable about politics, are more likely to vote, and more likely to participate in politics in other ways (Prior, 2008). Therefore, if parents are politically engaged and frequently discuss politics with their child, researchers believe that parents will have an enormous degree of influence on the political learning that takes place in pre-adulthood (Sandell-Pacheco, 2008; Jennings, Stoker, & Bowers, 2009). Behavioural psychologists will agree that parental influence is the strongest component in shaping one’s morals, values, and beliefs. Albert Bandura, who developed Social Learning Theory, believed that people learn through observation (Feist & Feist, 2009). Parents (or primary caregivers) often provide the greatest quantity of learning experiences to children throughout their development (Fisak & Grills-Taquechel, 2007).


As the child ages, their primary influences typically shift to their peers, especially in their teens. Researchers agree that adolescence is an important time for political development (Sandell-Pacheco, 2008; Prior, 2008). As Prior (2008) notes, it is a teenager’s peer’s whose approval, admiration and respect they attempt to win in their everyday activities, whether in school or out. This dates all the way back to Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, where adolescence must gain a sense of ego identity and overcome the crisis of identity confusion (Feist & Feist, 2009).

Teachers are also said to have an impact on a child social development. While in high school, teachers might come to talk about politics, whether it is part of the curriculum or just for general discussion (Dostie-Goulet, 2009). Many scholars have come to the conclusion that civic education, such as a history class, does enhance political knowledge, and should not be overlooked as an important contributor to political interest (Claes, Stolle, & Hooghe, 2007).

According to the literature, political interest typically rises during high school years, and will fluctuate over one’s life span (Prior, 2008; Dostie-Goulet, 2009). Exploring alternative political perspectives, working with people from different social backgrounds, and toying with a range of different perspectives on social issues provide opportunities to reflect on one’s own views and where they stand on political ground (Flanagan & Levine, 2010). Therefore, this fluctuation on political opinion over one’s life-span can be positively correlated with specific events that happen during one’s lifetime that can affect one’s political engagement, such as World War 2, Brian Mulroney’s economic reforms, or 9/11.

Getting children interested in politics at a young age is crucial. It shapes their development on not only the political sphere, but socially and academically as well. Talk to your children about the world around them, what they would like to see happen, and what they feel are their rights and responsibilities.

About the author: Shawna Lacharite holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology, and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Counseling Psychology. She also works as a counselor in the health & nutrition field, and is a single mom to her 6 year old daughter.


Andolina, M. W., Jenkins, K., Zukin, C. & Keeter, S. (2003). Habits from home, lessons from school: Influences on youth civic engagement. PS: Political Science and Politics, 36(2), 275-280.

Claes, R., Stolle, D. & Hooghe, M. (2007). Socializing new citizens. Teaching and Learning Conference of the American Political Science Association. Charlotte, NC, February 2007.

Dostie-Goulet, E. (2009). Social networks and the development of political interest. Journal of Youth Studies, 12(4), 405-421

Feist, J. & Feist, G. J. (2009). Theories of Personality. NY: McGraw-Hill.

Fisak, B. J. & Grills-Taquechel, A. E. (2007). Parental modeling, reinforcement, and information transfer: Risk factors in the development of child anxiety? Clinical Child and Family Psychology, 10(3), 213-231.

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Flanagan, C. & Levine, P. (2010). Civic engagement and the transition to adulthood. Future of Children, 20(1), 159-179.

Jennings, M., Stoker, L. & Bowers, J. (2009). Politics across generations: Family transmission re-examined. Journal of Politics, 71(3), 780-799.

Prior, M. (2008). The stability of political interest over the life cycle. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, 3-6 April 2008.

Sandell-Pacheco, J. (2008). Political socialization in context: The effect of political competition on youth voter turnout. Political Behaviour, 30, 415-436.