American Sociological Association

What Should Children Learn? Americans’ Changing Socialization Values, 1986–2018

Assessing changes in socialization values for children provides a unique window into how Americans perceive the landscape of their society. We examine whether, since the mid-1980s, Americans (1) emphasized survival values, like hard work, for children, as economic precarity rose or (2) prioritized self-expression values, like autonomy and compassion, as expected in postindustrial society. Analysis of 1986 to 2018 General Social Survey (N = 23,109) supports the precarity thesis: Preferences for hard work increased steadily whereas preferences for autonomy, the top-ranked quality throughout the period, declined. There was some indication of enduring self-expression values, as support for compassion increased and its relative importance to hard work stayed stable. Decomposition analyses show valuing hard work would have been even greater without demographic changes like an increase in college graduates. Aligning with earlier research, valuing obedience in children continued to decline. Our results extend theoretical work on complexities of socioeconomic links to parenting values.


Kei Nomaguchi and Melissa A. Milkie