Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

How our parents' political behavior shapes our own

Research shows that politically engaged parents lead to politically engaged children. But parents' influence takes different forms.
Research shows that politically engaged parents lead to politically engaged children. But parents' influence takes different forms.
Photo by buschap/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Vicki Tamoush remembers growing up in a household where talk of Mideast politics and conflict was part of the daily conversation.

“I would overhear bits of conversations," Tamoush recalls, "and I could tell who felt strongly about politics and about the Middle East."

The strongest opinions, she says, came from her maternal grandparents. Both were Syrian immigrants who fled persecution under the Ottoman Empire.

After they settled in the United States, they became deeply political. Tamoush’s grandmother, a garment worker, became a union organizer. She voted religiously.

“She always made sure I knew when elections were coming up," said Tamoush. "She would tell me far in advance exactly when we were going to the polls, and how I had to make sure I was home from work on time.”

Her mother also voted regularly. And Tamoush, now 59, considers herself to be deeply political.

"I don’t just follow what's on the ballot...I don't just look into the different candidates and decide on them, but far beyond that," says Tamoush, an Irvine resident who says she also volunteers in her community. "And I there's no question that this value  came particularly from my maternal grandparents."

This is no surprise, says Lindsay Hoffman, a communications professor with the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication.

“I tell my students that they are not born Democrats and they are not born Republicans, that these things are inculcated into us through a number of sources," said Hoffman, who has written about these parent-child political dynamics.

"The most important source of our understanding of our own political identity comes from our parents. It’s not necessarily if our parents are Democrats or Republicans, but it is how our parents communicate with us.”

The more political discussion there is in a family, the more it trickles down to the next generation, Hoffman says - and the opposite holds true for families that don’t discuss politics.

Ramon Zavala describes the household he grew up in as politically disengaged. Neither of his parents voted.

“The news was rarely on in our home," said Zavala, who heads UC Irvine's sustainable transportation program. "It was mostly entertainment, kind of drowning out real life for a while.”

Zavala's father was a Mexican American Vietnam veteran who had already grown up feeling disenfranchised; Zavala recalls his father urging him not to speak Spanish as a boy. His father's social disconnect became worse after the war. 

“I would have thought, naively of course, that anyone who went through the military would have some feeling of deservedness, some sort of stake in the way our country is run," Zavala said. "But when he returned, he went back into poverty. He went back into gangs.”

Zavala said his own political awareness came about through teachers and friends, influences that experts say can also make a difference. Now 32, he says he hasn't missed a single election.

"Once I fully understood their lives, and how it affected the whole family, I decided to pretty much try to do the opposite," Zavala said.

Research has shown that younger voters especially tend to mirror their parents' politics. But just because parents are politically engaged doesn’t mean their children will take up their beliefs. Some can go in completely the opposite direction, as suggested by a recent British study.

Hieu Nguyen is a social worker. He’s openly gay. And, unlike his conservative Vietnamese immigrant parents, he’s a Democrat.

“Their view, and their sort of world view, contrasted with mine so much that it made me really think about the other side," said Nguyen, 30, who arrived at age 9 from Vietnam and grew up in Orange County.

He understands there's a generational disconnect, with his parents having experienced life under communism in a way that he and his U.S.-raised peers can't begin to understand.

"They feel it in their bodies, they feel it in their minds, add in their memories, but for their children who didn't go through that personally, they have only experienced it through stories," he said.

But in its own way, Nguyen said, his parents’ political passion has shaped him nonetheless.