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Researchers find youths knowledgeable about politics, call for better early political education

Mon, 09/16/2019


LAWRENCE — Talking about politics isn’t always comfortable, especially with children. But research has shown they know more about the topic than we might assume. A University of Kansas professor has co-written a study arguing that children’s knowledge and future political engagement could be even better if American political education started earlier in schools.

In 2016, children were well-informed about the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the study found, but that wasn’t necessarily because their parents and teachers discussed the election. Meagan Patterson, associate professor of educational psychology at KU, and co-authors said that many children expressed fear, concern and negative attitudes about the election and that addressing such topics in an educational setting could help.

“People often tend to think children don’t know much about politics or that we shouldn’t talk to them about controversial or sensitive topics. We’re trying to inform that question of what they know and how we should approach political subjects with this study,” Patterson said. “Kids are pretty knowledgeable, at least in the context of a presidential election. Our data suggest that the old assumptions that they don’t know much or don’t care aren’t true. It also suggests their attitudes are influenced by their family, parents and their community.”

Patterson and co-authors Rebecca Bigler, Erin Pahlke, Christia Spears Brown, Amy Roberson Hayes, M. Chantal Ramirez and Andrew Nelson wrote “Toward a Developmental Science of Politics” for the series Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. They included results of interviews with children about the 2016 election and an argument for developing better, earlier political education for American students. The researchers also called for lowering the voting age.

The authors interviewed 187 children between ages 5 and 11 from Kansas, Kentucky, Texas and Washington with varying voting patterns before and after the 2016 presidential election. The findings varied but showed a broad base of knowledge. Nearly all children knew who the candidates were, but about 30 percent did not realize Clinton would be the first female president. Overall, more children had negative opinions of the candidates’ personal qualities than positive, especially with Trump at 56 to 18 percent, respectively. More were also familiar with Trump’s policy proposals, naming his immigration platform and specifically building a wall between the United States and Mexico.

“I think that’s a bit concerning,” Patterson said. “We’d like to be able to have faith in whoever is elected to be president. Sadness, anger and fear were all common responses to the election outcomes, which we thought was concerning.”

The fact that immigration was widely known as a major policy was not surprising as the concept of a wall is not as abstract as topics like trade or health care, Patterson said, and a large percentage of the sample was Latino and their lives could be affected by such policies. The children were not as well-informed on topics of gender, with few aware that women are under-represented throughout government. Only one respondent could name a women’s rights activist in Susan B. Anthony, while children were more aware of civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr.

The postelection interviews showed that Clinton’s loss did not dampen the political enthusiasm of young girls. Those who said they were interested in politics before the election remained so afterward.

The results also showed that children’s interest in politics did not relate to their parents’ level of interest. A majority reported their parents rarely talked with them about the election, even with respondents who expressed political interest. While most youths could say which candidate their parents preferred, they heard about politics from other sources as well, the study found.

The study helps inform the discussion of political education and adds to literature about political socialization of young children. Most research on the topic does not begin before adolescence, the authors wrote. They argued that further research on political socialization could help predict what happens with political behaviors later in life. The authors also argued for the establishment of a developmental science of politics that “describes, explains and predicts the formation and change of individuals’ political knowledge, attitudes and behavior beginning in childhood and continuing across the life course.”

The study of politics focused on the characteristics of the child, family and community could both help educate children and inform research about political engagement, the authors wrote. The characteristics of children could include addressing their understanding of abstract issues such as gender, race, fairness and motivation to take part in politics. At the family level, topics could include parental engagement, talking with kids about campaigns and voting, and taking them to the polls. In terms of community, discussing what kids hear in school, what sort of political signs they observe, what they hear and see in local media, and civics education in school should all be included, the authors said.

“The answer to a lot of these questions is we just don’t know because there is so little research in these areas,” Patterson said. “We know about community effects in older kids but not at this young age.”

The authors also argued for lowering the voting age to 16. Young people cognitively understand political issues at that age the same as when they are 18, and there would be more support to get 16-year-olds to the polls and vote in their first election than later, Patterson said. Research has shown that students who go to college are more likely to vote for the first time at 18 or shortly thereafter as there is more support on campuses for voting than for young people not in college. Such support would be even greater for youths to vote as soon as they are eligible and to remain politically engaged.

“We argue that kids would benefit if teachers and parents talked about these issues with them,” Patterson said. “We understand why it’s not easy to do so, but we also want to give some guidance on how to do it so they can help young people feel optimistic and engaged about the democratic process.”



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