Authors’ Response to Commentaries on Patterson et al. (2019). Toward a Developmental Science of Politics.

About the Authors

Rebecca S. Bigler

Department of Psychology,
University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Bigler is a professor emeritx of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Erin Pahlke

Department of Psychology,
Whitman College

Dr. Pahlke is an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

Meagan M. Patterson

Department of Educational Psychology,
University of Kansas

Dr. Patterson is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Kansas.

Children’s Political Development: Pessimism or Optimism?

We thank the scholars who authored commentaries on our SRCD Monograph (Patterson et al., 2019) for their thoughtful and interesting pieces. In responding to their work, we opted to reflect on an issue that, although raised explicitly by a single commentator, is pertinent to all three pieces: the question of whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about improving the conditions, processes, and outcomes of children’s political development.

The topic of pessimism was raised by Welch (2019), who wrote, “I agree that each [recommendation] is worth exploring, though, probably like the authors themselves, am pessimistic about the progress that can realistically be made.” The line gave us pause and prompted us to ask ourselves: are we pessimistic about the future of children’s political development? If so, what are the grounds for our pessimism?

Mark Twain wrote, “The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little” (Bush, Courtney, & Messent, 2017, p. 3). This statement implies that knowledge, which generally increases with age and experience, induces pessimism. Consistent with this view, our own increasing age, experience, and knowledge have dampened our optimism about achieving reforms related to civic education and engagement, children’s right to political participation, parental political socialization, and gender equality in politics.

With respect to civic education, Welch (2019) poetically noted: “Improving civic education is a hardy perennial recommendation that never seems to flower.” The failure to reform civic education is not the result of lack of know-how. The literature offers many empirically-backed strategies for improving political engagement. Introducing children to political issues and giving them experience with political debate are known to increase interest and participation (Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, & Keeter, 2003, Hess & McAvoy, 2016; Torney-Purta, 2002), and yet such practices are unlikely to be widely implemented. Why? In large part, it is because many stakeholders (including parents, educators, and policymakers) strenuously object to political issues being addressed in schools. For example, although the topic has not to our knowledge been studied systematically, many parents seem to fear that their children will adopt political views that contravene their own as result of exposure to opposing viewpoints.

If classroom instruction is unlikely to change, might civic engagement serve as a vehicle to improve children’s political knowledge and engagement? In her commentary, Flanagan (2019) noted that “[i]nvolvement in public performance, community service, and political action in adolescence predicts voting, volunteering, and civic leadership in adulthood.” We agree and yet participation is typically voluntary, and thus likely to draw students who are already engaged or who have the encouragement of parents or teachers. The United States has no mandatory service requirement for youth, as do some other countries (e.g., France, Israel, Nigeria, Taiwan; see Goyette & Petersen, 2015; McBride & Sherraden, 2007; Williamson, 2018). We are pessimistic that requirements for civic participation will ever be widely implemented in the United States, despite some evidence that such programs are associated with positive effects (see Reinders & Youniss, 2006). The failure to translate knowledge into social and educational policy is not unique to civic instruction and engagement; long-time observers of educational policy have seen empirical evidence ignored on many occasions (e.g., Halpern et al., 2011).

Another possible avenue of institutional reform is awarding children the right to political participation. Ruck and Tang (2019) express disappointment over the United States’ continued refusal to ratify the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), as well as over the more general exclusion of children from political processes and decision-making in their communities. Do we anticipate that the U.S. will ratify the CRC’s recommendations in the future? No. Research on the topic might help illuminate the reasons for adults’ objections. It seems possible that children are viewed by U.S. adults as fundamentally too gullible and ignorant to be worthy of a political voice, or perhaps adults are unwilling to share political power with yet another group of historically disenfranchised constituents.

In the absence of institutional reforms, the burden of improving political outcomes falls to parents. We argue that parents should strive to interest their children in politics, and teach their children the skills necessary to seek information and form their own opinions about political issues and candidates. However, Welch expressed pessimism that parents and other adults will, in the future, engage in political socialization practices that effectively generate political knowledge and interest in children. She correctly noted that U.S. adults are frequently themselves ignorant about key political issues, processes, and figures. While studying political knowledge and experiences over the last decade (see Bigler et al., 2008; Pahlke, Bigler, & Patterson, 2018; Patterson et al., 2013), we have each had many conversations with adults who view politics as boring and irrelevant to their own lives. Thus, we generally share Welch’s pessimism about adults’ ability (at the group level) to effectively meet the challenge of improving political socialization. We also acknowledge the fundamental limitations of putting the burden of children’s political development primarily on parents, who have many other responsibilities and priorities. Other authors have criticized the neoliberal emphasis on political action at the individual level (e.g., Lukacs, 2017), and we agree that, if parents are solely responsible for teaching their children about politics, many children will continue to be ignorant and apathetic.

Although the commentary writers said little about gender/sex, we consider, too, whether we are also disheartened about the achievement of gender/sex equality within politics. On this topic, too, experience seems to breed pessimism. Children watching Hillary Clinton vie for the U.S. presidency in 2016 had never seen a female candidate try and fail in a bid to be president. Furthermore, they appeared to know little about women’s struggle and failure to achieve parity to men’s political power. Given their ignorance, it is perhaps unsurprising that the children in our sample were optimistic about Clinton’s chances of winning and generally expected that her gender would be an asset (rather than a liability) to her campaign. In contrast, our professional and personal experiences have taught us much about sexism in politics. Perhaps especially troubling to us (given our commitment to gender equality) is that our research has suggested that the majority of White women cast their votes for Donald Trump rather than Hillary Clinton in 2016 did so, at least in part, because they did not identify with feminism (Pahlke et al., 2018).

Despite myriad possible reasons for pessimism, we believe that it is vital to reject cynicism because the stakes involved—both in the U.S. and worldwide—are enormous. Political action is necessary to address many urgent issues, including war, migration, world trade, and climate change. Furthermore, as technological and media advances make the world increasingly interconnected, and make the creation and dissemination of false information ever easier, citizens’ ability to think critically about political issues likewise becomes more important than ever. Thus, we end our comments by noting some reasons for optimism.

One reason for optimism is that some (perhaps many) individuals, both children and adults, show high levels of political interest. Books, films, and television programs about history, politics, and government are popular. For example, at the time we began writing this piece (August 2019), the top ten books on the New York Times (2019) list of nonfiction best-sellers included three books about contemporary political issues or figures, one book about U.S. history, and a memoir by former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. The tremendous and broad appeal of the Broadway musical Hamilton suggests that a wide swath of the American public can find politics to be dramatic, interesting, and appropriate for children. Some teachers and parents are using the musical as an entry point to engage children with civics and history (Schulten, Gross, & Gonchar, 2016).

In addition, despite the lack of official acknowledgement of youths’ right to political participation, several locales across the U.S. have increased youths’ access to political processes. Ruck and Tang (2019) discussed such initiatives in cities such as Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. As we described in our monograph (Patterson et al., 2019), some municipalities have experimented with lowering the voting age in local elections, with positive results. It is also worth noting that the voting age in the U.S. was lowered in 1971 from 21 to 18, in part as a response to activism related to the draft during the Vietnam War. Thus, there is historical precedent for giving young people a direct voice on issues that affect them.

Furthermore, although adults are often poor socializers of political knowledge, children are active agents in their political development (see Ojeda & Hatemi, 2015; Ruck & Tang, 2019). Youth can and do seek out a variety of messages and information sources that may inspire them to understand and engage with politics, and they may be increasingly motivated to do so by observing the actions and impact of other young people. Illustrative models include environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who was nominated in 2019 for the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 16; Malala Yousafzai, whose work on behalf of girls’ access to education led her to become—at age 17— the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014; and the Parkland, Florida high school students whose work for gun reform led them to be awarded the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2018. Finally, the 2018 midterm elections offered reasons for optimism concerning gender/sex equality in political power. The elections produced unprecedented gains in women’s political representation. In her book Unbought and Unbossed, U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate Shirley Chisolm wrote, “America has the laws and the material resources it takes to insure justice for all its people. What it lacks is the heart, the humanity, the Christian love that it would take.” (1970, p. 106). We agree with Chisolm about the great potential of the United States to achieve a political system that is effective and fair for all. Enriched political socialization and greater inclusion of children’s voices in political processes at the local, state, and national levels are fundamental to progress toward achieving Chisholm’s goal of justice for all people. We hope the U.S. discovers the will to make such progress.


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