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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.

Lea la versión en español en El estilo de crianza puede determinar si los niños se convierten en conservadores o liberales.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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  1. Nell says:

    I suspect this study was manipulated or bias was used to interpret the results. For starters, there are more than just two kinds of parenting. Actually, most parents probably combine a number of them. You would be more likely to find that conservatives prefer common sense parenting where they are the primary influence on their children, passing along that common sense. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are helicopter parents. Liberals are more likely to prefer one of the two listed in the article. They seem to either let their kids roam free, learning from anyone, whether qualified to “teach” or not, or they are busy pushing liberal/leftist ideas on their kids. These two parenting types are most likely to indicate whether a child will grow up conservative or liberal. I’ve spent 73 years observing people and this is what my study shows.

    1. Leah says:

      Dear Nell,

      From the original press release:

      “In this work, Oppenheimer and his colleague Christian Lindke focused on the concept of the ‘helicopter parent,’ which has been defined as ‘a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children.’ ‘Free-range parenting’ falls on the opposite extreme to this parenting style. ”

      You wrote- “there are more than just two kinds of parenting.” That is correct. But only two opposite types of parenting are studied here. Research involves asking smaller, bite sized questions in order to better understand the big picture. No manipulations or bias needed. Please read more thoughtfully in the future.

  2. Allan Aanonson says:

    This is a questionable study. My wife and I definately did not have helicopter parents. We would say we are going out to play and not come home until the sun went down and our parents would never even ask what we were doing all day. We are both Ultra Maga. With having free range parents we learned the value of freedom and the responsibilites that come with it.

    All the friends we know who are helicopter parents are as liberal as you can get and their children are even more liberal than them.

    I would question the TRUTH of this study.

    1. Leah says:

      Dear Allan,

      Your personal experience is actually completely consistent with the study.

      “We would say we are going out to play and not come home until the sun went down and our parents would never even ask what we were doing all day.”

      That is consistent with both liberal and conservative parents–when you were growing up.

      But these days, neither conservative or liberal parents can raise their children that way (only very small minorities) because people must live near jobs, and there are so many cars and so few sidewalks. Instead, both types of families have to actively go out of their way to deliver their child to safe places to play outside the home. So, in the modern day, helicopter isn’t describing what you think it is, and it isn’t the differentiator you think it is.

      In this study, helicoptering “has been defined as ‘a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children.”

      You think that could only describe liberals, but consider the stereotypical conservative family also exists: the one who, in the name of moral protection, controls who their child sees, who they talk to, what games they play and where they go at all times. Millions of families like this exist, and vote conservative- regardless of whether or not you are friends with them or if they are in your social circle or state.

  3. Sherry says:

    Proverbs 22:6 – Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

  4. Jim M says:

    Sorry, but this is stupid. The term “helicopter parent” has a definite negative overtone to it and they define it as a parent who disciplines their kids. Personally, I think discipline is extremely important for parents to do. It’s part of their responsibility in raising their kids. So claiming that being a disciplinarian is the same as being a helicopter parent is stacking the deck. It has more to do with a person’s worldview than their “parenting style” because a parenting style is chosen based on what one believes – on how one looks at the world. If being a disciplinarian leads to kids becoming conservative, then I think we need a lot more conservatives in this world!

    1. Dr. KAM says:

      Totally bogus article, and easy to see through. You couldn’t be more blatantly unscientific, liberally-biased, and illogical. This is petty disinformation, and absurd to suggest conservatives are the product of overprotective, overbearing, “helicopter parents.” In fact, liberals are such petty, control freaks by nature, you’re much more likely to be helicopter parents who control everything your kids see and hear – not in a nurturing, wholesome way that protects them from pornography, vulgarity, criminality, etc., rather, from traditional ideas and conservative opinions (Studies have always shown liberals to be much more prone to sexual deviance, violence, drug use, and criminality – as a matter of fact).

  5. R Clary says:

    So, sissy parents make liberal kids.
    I already knew that1

  6. E B says:

    I sense confirmation-bias here. Why would helicopter parenting raise children who are more anti-authority and skeptical of nanny states?

  7. Redsquare says:

    Correlation does not imply causation.

    I would tend to think that since it has pretty much been demonstrated that “liberal and conservative “ is in great part inborn, the parenting styles tend to lead to these results because the children tend have the same morality as the parents because of genetics.

    If you don’t think so, check out the works of Jonathan Haidt.