Research Summary

The Intergenerational Transmission of Environmental Concern: The Influence of Parents and Communication Patterns Within the Family

The Extent of Transmission of Environmental Concern from Parent to Child

The Journal of Environmental Education

Previous research has found that many social and political attitudes are highly developed by the end of high school and tend to remain relatively stable throughout the rest of life. The influences that shape the development of environmental concern among youth and adolescents, therefore, are particularly important for environmental educators to understand. Environmental concern is the values and beliefs one has toward the environment and nature. Intuition would posit that parents play an important role in fostering environmental concern among their children; however, this role has not been well documented. This study asked: “To what extent, and how, is environmental concern transmitted from parent to child?”

The researchers investigated three different models for the transmission of environmental concern between parents and children: direct transmission, indirect transmission, and gender-specific transmission. Direct transmission is the overall transmission of values from parent to child; the hypothesis based on this model is that the level of environmental concern will be related between parents and children. Indirect transmission refers to the family context and communication patterns within a family. This model posits that if families talk about the environment at home, children are more likely to have a higher degree of environmental concern. Finally, gender-specific transmission means that the influence of parents on their children regarding environmental concern is different depending on the gender of the parent and child. Based on their literature review, the authors of this study hypothesized that mothers would have a stronger impact than fathers on the environmental concern of both their sons and daughters.

To investigate these questions, the authors used data from the Parent-Child Socialization Study (PCSS) (Hooghe et al., 2012). The PCSS was given to Dutch adolescents and their parents, and data were collected on social and political attitudes, family situations, and parent–child relationships. Sixty-one Dutch secondary schools were randomly selected for the study, and all pupils in their third year of secondary school (average age of 15) completed the questionnaire during class hours. The students were given similar questionnaires for their parents to complete. In total, 3,426 adolescents (54% male), 2,305 mothers, and 2,092 fathers participated in the survey. Because of the nature of question regarding gender-specific transmission, single-parent families were not included in the analysis.

The questionnaire measured environmental concern through five items that asked about the level of importance and involvement in aspects of the environment, which could be answered on a five-point scale from 1 (totally disagree) to 5 (totally agree). To measure indirect transmission, this question was asked: “How many times have you talked about environmental pollution with your parents? With your mother? With your father?” These questions were answered on a four-point scale, from 1 (never) to 4 (often). Gender (male or female) was another variable that was included in the analysis. The researchers also took into account the education level of the parents, since research has shown that individuals with higher levels of education tend to be more concerned about the environment.

The results showed that parents were significantly more concerned about the environment than their children, indicating a generation gap. No significant differences were found between the environmental concern of mothers and fathers, or sons and daughters. In general, it was found that adolescents talk a little more with their mother than with their father about the environment.

The results indicated a significant positive correlation between the environmental concern of parents and their children. Overall, the environmental concern of mother and father combined accounted for about 10% of the total variance in the environmental concern of the child. This effect was stronger for girls than for boys, suggesting that girls’ environmental concern is more influenced by parents.

With regard to the role of indirect transmission through conversation about the environment in the household, the researchers found that this did seem to have a strong influence on the environmental concern of the adolescents. Specifically, the more often a child discusses environmental issues with parents, the more likely they are to have high environmental concern. This affect seemed to be similar for talking with either parent. The frequency of communication about the environment was also higher in families where the parents are more concerned.

Finally, the researchers investigated the effects of gender-specific transmission. Contrary to their prediction, the authors found that mothers and fathers appear to have the same influence on both girls and boys, and they could discern no gender patterns among the results.

While the intergenerational transmission does appear to have an influence, these results also showed that a large part of the variance in environmental concern of adolescents (about 90%) remains unexplained. Peers, media, formal environmental education, and other factors may all play important roles.

The Bottom Line

The environmental concern of parents has a significant positive effect on that of their children. Moreover, in families where environmental issues are discussed, children are more likely to develop a sense of concern for these issues. As a teacher, this knowledge can be used to encourage children and parents to discuss environmental issues at home, through questions or take-home activities. Involving parents in environmental education activities is also valuable, since it creates reasons for more discussion about these issues at home. Since overall, parents were found to have a greater sense of environmental concern than their children, parents may also serve to continue educating and influencing their children in positive ways long after the environmental education experience has taken place.