Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 3: 4. Learning about Politics in Families

Updated: 20 January 2011

4. Learning about Politics in Families

In the YES research we are endeavouring not just to find out about the ways young people discussed politics but also about aspects of learning about politics within families. We want to find out whether young people think they learned about politics in the domain of the family and, if so, what, and how, they learn.

4.1 What effect do families have in attitudes toward politics?

In Section 3 we began to explore the idea that learning does not simply involve the transmission of quantifiable knowledge. Some participants who reported that politics was not discussed in their families also reported that they lacked knowledge and interest as a result. Discussion in this section obviously excludes these participants, as well as others who indicated that politics was not discussed in their families, and deals only with that subset that report that they engage in some process of information and opinion sharing about politics within their families.

We also noted some problems involved in thinking about the transmission of political behaviour and opinions in terms of 'socialisation'. In this context it is significant that some focus group participants, as shown in Exhibit 4, recognise the family not only as an important learning environment, but one where young people are 'socialised'. Those recognising this frequently described the process of socialisation as a simple 'top-down' transfer of values, opinions and knowledge, with young people mostly passively assimilating and replicating the views of their parents.

Exhibit 4: Transmission of Values about Politics Across Familial Generations

Ally from Central Districts High School, for example, said, "it is interesting how children inherit their parents' politics".

Christine from Malory College said, "because you are socialised by your family and everything" that most young people would have similar views to their families.

A student at Rural View High School saw attitudes towards enrolling and voting specifically as dependent on family background and the attitudes passed on about voting to children. She said her parents had taught her that voting was very important.

A student from Farnell High School said, "you grow up and take on your family's values".

For the most part the above quotes in Exhibit 4 refer to the general process of knowledge transmission and 'socialisation' rather than personal experience. There are few 'I' statements in these quotes; most are generalisations about the way that these participants conceptualise the transmission of knowledge.

When those participants who reported that they learned about politics from discussions within their families described the way that they learned, though, the picture was, for the most part, very different from this simple 'top down' model of passive acceptance of political knowledge. Not only was the process not a simple 'top down' one, but participants described being actively engaged. To this end they also sought external sources in order to furnish their political learning.

Apart from those who reported that they directly inherited their parents' lack of interest in politics, discussed above, it was rare to hear from participants that they unquestioningly followed the political leads of their parents. We did hear this view from a minority of interviewees who reported that they would just do as their parents did or told them to do. Three of these minority views are discussed below in Exhibit 5.

Exhibit 5: Examples of Strong Parental Influence

At St Mary's Catholic College a participant said, "my parents sort of form my opinions, they have a big input".

Alecia from Dampier High School said of politics "I take their word for it because I've got no idea".

Lyndon from Marino High School said he discussed politics a lot with his family and tended to agree with their views. "Who you support comes a lot from who your parents support, what you hear at home".

There were participants who reported that they did not actively pursue discussions about politics or try to gather information either within their families or elsewhere. Those who did, however, described a process whereby they actively sought knowledge, both from their parents and from other sources, in order to actively form opinions and views. These sources included friends, school and the media. With respect to learning about politics at school, as well as general classroom discussion, it was also common for participants to describe learning from particular knowledgeable or enthusiastic teachers. Church groups and parents of friends were mentioned less commonly as sources of political knowledge by the students. The quotes in Exhibit 6 illustrate the variety of sources from which participants report they gain political knowledge.

Exhibit 6: Examples of Other Sources of Influence on Attitudes towards Politics

Students at Malory College reported that although they learned about politics from parents they also considered they learned from discussing issues with school friends. Some issues were also discussed more formally in the classroom and participants learned from these also.

Participants at Rural View High School mentioned the media as a particular source they used in order to gain information about politics.

At Mayfield Secondary College students mentioned a diversity of people they discussed politics with including their politics class, friends, church congregation, teachers and family friends. Similarly this group also found information from a variety of media sources.

At Central Districts High School participants mentioned particular teachers as people they discussed politics with.

Students at Grania High School said that whereas parents were sources of information about politics that they also considered school friends as sources.

The next question that arises is how influential these different sources are. In Table 2 we presented data showing the effectiveness of the various sources with respect to student intention to vote. In that table, newspapers and parents were clearly most important. As described in Exhibit 7, we encountered mixed responses from YES participants with regard to how influential they think their family environments are in shaping their personal views about politics. A minority view among participants was that parents' views were uncritically accepted. Amongst the plethora of other responses were those who indicated that they tended to agree with their parents, but that this agreement is the result of 'testing' other views first. Many acknowledged that their parents provided the foundations on which they developed their own ideas. For others the object was to 'develop our own views', to not be tied to those of parents, or at least to test parents' views against external sources.

What is significant, though, is that this is an active process. Participants are conscious of their own agency in terms of learning. Participants describe 'listening' to the media for information or 'seeking global views' which they compare and contrast with views obtained elsewhere, as well as discuss with parents and others. Also significant is that the development of 'own' views is implicitly, or explicitly in the case of some, associated with 'growing-up'.

Exhibit 7: The Effectiveness of Parental Influence

Participants from Rural View High School were ambivalent about parental influence. Most conceded that parents were their main influence but also said that they were developing their own views. One said "I think my parents have influenced me with voting but more it comes down to what I think". This was seen as being part of 'growing up' with two participants saying that by the time of the attainment of the age of majority that most young people had their own individual thoughts about politics and the issues that affect them.

In the formation of these 'individual thoughts' participants referenced the media as being particularly important. "We listen to our parents but it's been the media more than our parents having an influence on our lives. We'd rather listen to the media and hear about government from the media, more than we do our parents".

Many participants from Pinehill Catholic College agreed that they had learnt from their parents. One said that his father's ideas about political parties had caught his attention. Another said that although their parents "kind of set my views about voting in general" that they would "go to the media and get global ideas" too before voting. Another said she thought she'd "end up voting the same way as my parents" although "it's not because they forced me, or anything".

At St Jude's Catholic College opinions were again mixed. One student reported he was not influenced by his family but rather had his "own opinions". Another agreed saying, "I listen to what my parents say but also to other views".

One student at Northcott Secondary College said her parents kept her "informed" about politics and another said her parents encouraged her to be informed through reading the newspaper.

Although students at Our lady of Lourdes Catholic College were generally in agreement that their parents had been influential in shaping their political opinions they also noted that other sources, school, the media and extended family (cousins) had influenced them too.

Whereas students at Trenton Catholic College acknowledged the influence of their parents they also said that they were increasingly seeking other sources of information as well. They said that school was becoming a big influence. Gretel said "to start off I think that parents' views were quite a big influence. But now I think my views are quite different. I started off with similar views to them because they were the only views I was aware of".

4.2 Parent-Student Conflicts about Politics

The process of 'moving away' from parental views and developing individual opinions about politics is also the potential cause of conflict on political issues as seen in Exhibit 8. Again, of significance, is that for many participants the process of learning about politics is active. Political views are not 'absorbed', they are critically evaluated and actively sought, though not necessarily deeply. Participants were aware of the process of learning, of different actors, and they saw themselves as agents.

Discussions involving friction can also be further indicative of the process of learning. Through bringing their externally obtained knowledge into the family environment young people have a chance to test this information. The process of discussion and debate also provides them with more knowledge, and, possibly, with the impetus to seek more information elsewhere to refine their views. In other words, debate can be an important part of the learning process.

In some families the friction was considered disruptive and discussion about political matters was 'banned' by parents. Such situations are different from those where there is simply no discussion about politics at all. However where this is the case, it is possible that the effect may be similar in that this silencing denies young people the scope to test and refine their political views.

Exhibit 8: Examples of Family Conflicts About Politics

Students from Pinehill College also argued with their parents about politics. One of the students was from an immigrant background. He described his parents as "pigheaded" about politics and noted that his opinions differed from theirs.

At Greenhill High School discussion about politics was also reported as leading to friction. At Crowfield Agricultural College discussion of politics was banned in some households because it led to disputes.

Stefanie from Johnson College said, "my father and I fight like you have no idea because we both have our really strong opinions and we just like yell at each other".

At St Jude's Catholic College some of the boys reported arguments in their families.

One student at Northcott Secondary College said that she was interested in arguing about politics with her family. Her use of the word arguing suggests some conflict. A classmate reported he had "problems" with his parents' views on politics.

Some students at Seaside College had argued with parents and one was quite emotive saying, "I was quite angry about a lot of the stuff that was said and the comments that were made".

At Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic College a female student said that she often disagreed with her parents since developing her own opinions. Other students agreed that as they got older they more frequently considered that their parents were wrong.

Students at Mayfield Secondary College were studying politics as part of their Year 12 subjects. As a group they were divided with respect to how much they agreed and disagreed with their parents. One particularly enthusiastic male student complained that his parents would not let him talk about politics as much as he liked. "I'm right and they're wrong", he said. Another girl had "big arguments" with her parents about politics. The parents complained that she had learnt her views from school, whereas she said she was only voicing her own opinion.

Key Points

  1. A large number of students did obtain at least some level of information and forming of opinions from parents.
  2. There was awareness amongst participants that they were engaged in a process of learning about politics.
  3. Some saw this process as a simple model where they inherited parental views. Others considered themselves as agents in a learning process.
  4. Whereas some reported that they thought they would take on the general framework of political values held by their parents it was more common that participants would test these opinions against views and knowledge sought externally to the family.
  5. The most common sources of political opinions outside of the family identified by participants were schools, particular teachers, the media and peers.
  6. Participants generally associated obtaining their own political values and opinions with the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
  7. A significant number of participants who reported that politics was discussed in their families also highlighted debate within their families about political matters.
  8. In some families discussion and debate about politics was 'banned'. This may deny young people a resource in terms of allowing them a place to test and refine their nascent views.