Ross Douthat posits that having daughters makes one more socially conservative. He writes: “To the extent that parents tend to see the next generation’s world through their children’s eyes, that’s an insight that’s more immediately available through daughters than through sons. And no matter what the next study says about your likelihood of actually turning into a Republican, once you’ve flirted with that insight, you’ve tiptoed a little closer to something that might be described as social conservatism.”
Based on highly anecdotal evidence and as the parent of two sons, let me offer a contrary view, namely that parenting itself makes one more conservative and that political liberals who take parenting seriously operate with some cognitive dissonance.
Let’s start with the sonogram, the music tapes for the baby in the womb and all the other triggers that undermine the ” it is just a fetus” argument. Liberals are no more immune to the wondrous discovery of the pre-born child than are conservatives, nor are parents of boys less affected than girls’ parents by the affirmation that this is a who and not a what upon whom medical services and educational attention are already focused. If having a child doesn’t change one’s views on abortion, it certainly should give one pause, most especially on the topic of late-term abortions.
It goes further, however. As my youngest prepares for his bar mitzvah, we and his classmates and their parents will be meeting periodically with the rabbi to discuss the mundane and the profound, the religious and the secular aspects of this rite of passage. Yesterday our rabbi conducted a fascinating exercise. Parents and kids were given a list of milestones ranging from “dress oneself without help” to “drive a car” to “unsupervised dates,” a couple dozen or so in total. Each child and parent filled these out separately, indicating at what age these should be permitted, and then compared and agreed upon an answer for that family. The answers defied the child’s gender and political ideology. Parents of boys and girls alike didn’t want their children on unsupervised dates until their late teens. Liberals and conservatives alike wanted their children to wait until their late 20s to marry. Parents across the board thought their kids should be able to prepare a meal by 10 and get part-time jobs in their early teens. This was a raucous display of social conservatism and personal responsibility.
Surely the answers from parents of moderate religiosity might be different from areligious ones, but the answers certainly confirmed (in this hugely unscientific and tiny sample) that something other than gender and political affiliation are at work. And there are some polling data of the country at large to back this up. (Exit polls show married people vote more conservatively than singles, married people with children vote more conservatively than marrieds without children, and frequent attendees of religious services vote more conservatively than non-attendees.) One can surmise it is the religious values or the parents’ socioeconomic behaviors that drive these answers.
Moreover, when it comes to one’s own family there is no obsession with inequality (parents know all too well different children require different things at different times and no parent in his or her right mind complains about grade inequality in the classroom). Thrift and avoidance of debt (most moms and dads didn’t want kids getting credit cards in their own names until adulthood) are priorities. Self-reliance is expected. While in the political realm these values, you might think, would translate to conservative political views, they don’t necessarily do so. That said, at least among moderately religious, middle-class families, conservative parenting, if you will, is the norm.
Perhaps, then, parenting doesn’t trump political affiliation (the bumper stickers for Barack Obama are still common in the temple parking lot), but it does, I think, require one either to edge rightward in one’s worldview or to manage a good deal of cognitive dissonance when it comes to some societal issues. The latter is not surprising; we tend not to think of our families as “just anyone.” But maybe we could start to think about “just anyone” more like our own kids, understanding that success and even happiness comes from strong parental involvement, individual accountability, a work ethic, delayed gratification and even personal modesty (this was not a crowd amenable to hair dying and makeup). The characteristics and skills that will make our kids happy and successful in general would do the same for all kids.
So, I’ll part company on the gender theory of parenting-politics. But I do, with each passing day, realize how hard will be the lives of those children who live in dysfunctional settings, with unorganized lives, little or no work experiences and low or nonexistent expectations. That is something that should concern us all.