Do Bratty Kids Turn into Conservatives or Liberals?

By Selwyn Duke

Are conservative leanings the fruits of intellectual inquiry or the fault of psychological frailty?  If psychologist Jack Block is to be believed, it’s the latter.

Publishing his findings in the Journal of Research into Personality (a must read, I’m sure), the UC Berkeley professor claims to have found a correlation between being a “whiny,” insecure child in nursery school and an embrace of conservatism in later life.  Describing the research in the Toronto Star, science writer Kurt Kleiner says,

In the 1960s Jack Block and his wife and fellow professor Jeanne Block (now deceased) began tracking more than 100 nursery school kids as part of a general study of personality. The kids' personalities were rated at the time by teachers and assistants who had known them for months . . . .

. . .  A few decades later, Block followed up with more surveys, looking again at personality, and this time at politics, too. The whiny kids tended to grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity.

The confident [and outgoing] kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests. The girls were still outgoing, but the young men tended to turn a little introspective.

Being a great bastion of liberalism, the social science realm has disgorged such data before.   As Kleiner points out,

Similar work by John T. Jost of Stanford and colleagues in 2003 drew a political backlash. The researchers reviewed 44 years worth of studies into the psychology of conservatism, and concluded that people who are dogmatic, fearful, intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty, and who crave order and structure are more likely to gravitate to conservatism.

One can imagine the reaction to such proclamations.  Liberals will use them to reinforce stereotypes about repressed, dysfunctional conservatives.  Many conservatives will scoff and dismiss them out of hand, convinced that psycho-babble is merely liberalism gussied up in scientific parlance.  And the study has its critics even within the social science community.  University of Arizona psychologist Jeff Greenberg said of Block’s research, “I found it to be biased, shoddy work, poor science at best.” 

Being a longtime critic of psychology, I’m inclined to agree.  That said, one would have to be intellectually lazy and quite incurious to delve no further.  I also think it fair to say that Block has noted some valid correlations.  The question is, though, are his interpretations and conclusions correct?

And many have asked just that question.  Professor Greenberg has posited the theory that the ideology insecure people gravitate toward may be determined by societal context.  According to Kleiner, “He [Greenberg] suspects that in Communist China, those kinds of people would likely become fervid party members.”  Presenting other counter arguments, Kleiner theorizes that perhaps tiny, budding conservatives simply recognize “that the world is a scary, unfair place,” that “their ‘rigidity’ may just be moral certainty,” and that their subsequent embrace of tradition may then simply be a mature, correct decision.  He then says, “The grown-up liberal men, on the other hand, with their introspection and recognition of complexity in the world, could be seen as self-indulgent and ineffectual.” 

I’m quoting Kleiner because I believe his article provides a good snapshot of the prevailing opposing arguments, and he and I find agreement on a couple of points.  But I still think the critics fail to boil this issue down to its bare essence.

I spent about fifteen years working with children, during which time I had the opportunity to observe thousands and the responsibility of disciplining hundreds.  I mention this because I too noticed a correlation between liberalism and childhood behavior.  In fact, I quickly reached a point where I could predict how a child’s parents voted based solely on his behavior.  And I wasn’t wrong too often.  How did I do it?

Quite simply, I noticed that the ill behaved children, the ones who were wild, unstable, who had contempt for rules, usually had politically liberal parents.  And the explanation is simple: aside from the example liberals may set, they also tend to raise their kids in very permissive ways, eschewing punishment and failing to enforce limits, instill discipline and demand obedience.

At the other end of the spectrum, I observed that the best behaved children often had three things in common: they had stay-at-home moms, attended church regularly (relatively rare in my area) and, more to the point here, had parents who were politically conservative.  Were there exceptions?  Yes, insofar as some well behaved kids didn’t fit the profile completely (but virtually every one had conservative parents).  However, I cannot think of even one instance wherein a child who conformed perfectly to the profile was not well behaved.

Now, it may seem as if Block and I are talking about very different things.  After all, my claim is that a certain type of ideology in the adult correlates with a certain type of behavior in his child, while his claim is that a certain type of childhood behavior correlates with a certain ideology in adulthood.  But while we certainly disagree on which ideology negative childhood traits are associated with, we are otherwise talking about the same phenomenon. 

This is because it’s widely recognized that, by and large, children reflect the ideology of their parents.  Sure, while the rebellious kid who casts his parents’ values to the winds – the Ron Reagan type – sticks out like a sore thumb, for every one of those there are at least a few who tread in their parents’ footsteps. 

And I strongly suspect that Block recognizes this.  In fact, regardless of whether these traits are the result of nature, nurture, or a combination thereof, they certainly are familial.  Thus, my effect is his cause, which leads to his effect, which is my cause, which leads to my effect . . . so on and so forth.  The parent influences the child, who grows up to be a parent, who then influences his child, who grows up to be a parent . . . . 

But then there is that disagreement.  Are negative traits associated with conservatism or liberalism?  Block places the onus on the former, so his findings contradict my anecdotal observations (which, I’ll reiterate, are legion).  How can this be explained?

                                                                  My Analysis

The answer is that I don’t accept Block’s basic suppositions, such as his rather tendentious interpretation and labeling of behavior.

Case in point: if a child makes it a habit to complain to an authority figure, some may call it being “whiny.”  Perhaps, though, it’s merely the result of having been instilled with the kind of healthy respect for authority that causes the child to address grievances through proper channels, as opposed to taking the law into his own hands.  (And I think a three or four-year-olds’ complaints will sound like whining no matter what.)  And it makes sense.  Conservative parents are more apt to stress respect for traditional hierarchies and legitimate authority.  And let’s face it, small children transgress against each other all the time, so they are often aggrieved.      
Moreover, you’re more likely to complain if you perceive that the rules of the controlling authority have been broken.  And since liberals tend to be more likely to pander to and negotiate with their kids, the latter probably won’t perceive as many rules as would a conservative child, who is more likely to be raised with black and white do’s and don’t’s.   Quite simply, you won’t tell the teacher that certain rules of his have been violated if you don’t know they exist.

Also, since liberal parents are permissive and ineffectual, their children may become conditioned to believe that going to adults for redress is fruitless.  And you won’t be likely to complain to someone if you believe it’s an exercise in futility.

Perhaps most significantly, since liberals’ children are more likely to be poorly behaved and, therefore, break rules and abuse peers, often the only ones they could “tell on” are themselves.  And the bad guys don’t go to the cops; the good guys do.

Then, are the qualities that Block labels confidence and gregariousness really those things, or are they brazenness, arrogance, and impudence?  In other words, maybe the liberals’ kids are just brats.  After all, I’ve found that modern psychologists tend to label virtues vices and vices virtues, as they call good bad and bad good.  A perfect example of this is what they call “self-esteem,” now reduced to a euphemism for pride.  

Even if the children in question are merely confident and outgoing (which I don’t believe for a second), I don’t accept the assumption that this is indicative of psychological health in a tiny child.  Why, I rather think that someone so young should be hesitant, insecure and shy, looking to adults for guidance and support and receptive to teaching.  A child that age should be clingy.  I mean, if you’re “confident and outgoing” when you’re four, what are you at fourteen?  Stupid, reckless and presumptuous?  No wonder liberals’ kids are on Ritalin when they’re eight.

As for the rest of the spirit of the age assertions, “rigid” (I was called this by a former employer) is how relativistic marshmallows characterize men of principle.  I may also posit that the“confident” kids turned into adults who eschew traditional sex roles and are so eager to rationalize their “hanging loose” behavior – which is just a nice way of saying they have contempt for strictures and traditions – that they’re uncomfortable with moral clarity.  And maybe what is being defined as “outgoing” behavior in the girls is really just the gratuitously precocious, overly assertive, promiscuous feminist attitude that so characterizes liberal women.  As for the “introspective” men, they could just be emasculated.  Are we talking about masculinized women and feminized men here, the Valkyries and metrosexuals of the third millennium?

Last but not least, I have to wonder when liberals are described as “non-conforming adults.”  I actually had to laugh; how is being liberal a non-conforming state when the status quo is now so liberal?  If iconoclasm is your fancy, try being a conservative and devout Christian.  And if you beg to differ, Professor Block, find some places in the western world where hate speech laws are used to stifle liberal expression.  Then get back to me.

I realized many moons ago that the social sciences today mainly serve to provide a specious scientific basis for liberalism.  Do you want to give criminals a slap on the wrist and substitute rehabilitation for punishment or legislate against spanking?  Simply point to studies that “show” that positive reinforcement is more effective than negative reinforcement.  Would you like to eliminate personal responsibility and cast everyone as a victim?  Just highlight research that “proves” that being a lush or a homosexual is caused by genes and childhood bad behavior by ADD.  Yes, psychology has long been attacking tenets of conservatism, as it veils its agenda with a facade of science.  And given this antipathy for the ideology, it’s little wonder that psycho-babblers’ zeal would eventually compel them to tip their hand and label conservatism itself as just another symptom of psychological inadequacy.  Maybe we should rename introductory psychology “How to Prove Liberalism Correct 101.” 

Of course, Jack Block has credibility.  He has a Ph.D. in psycho-babbling and a project that bears his name at UC Berkeley.  So, don’t listen to me.  Unless, that is, you attach importance to something that G.K. Chesterton called “that forgotten branch of psychology.”  Namely, common sense.
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