On 6 November, voters will pick a number of leaders who will decide how best to handle a variety of issues that will have a lasting impact on the country over the next few decades. A recent survey by Harvard University predicts a historically high turnout among Americans under the age of 30. 40 percent state that they will definitely vote for this interim election.
Being politically active is not only good for society, but research also shows that it is good for the individual. "When you commit yourself to a community and feel committed to it, you get a bigger goal for young people and build your social network," says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. A study published last year in the journal Applied Developmental Science found that people's engagement in the youth can provide psychological benefits, while another recent study published in Child Development found that adolescents and young adults who have voted themselves volunteering or being active, having better life outcomes: they stayed longer at school and earned higher incomes than their peers.
So what can parents do to inform and engage the next generation of voters? Experts say that citizenship education is a gradual process that starts early and builds up over the years – and that parents play an important role in their development. Here are some handy tips on building civic skills and motivation for kids of all ages:
Teach the behavior of a good citizenry to young children, Whether at school, at the playground or at home. Discuss how our positive and negative actions affect others, and why it is important to treat classmates with caution and respect. Assign tasks at home and personalize them to improve your home, says Amber Coleman-Mortley, Senior Digital Media Manager at iCivics, a non-profit group promoting civic education. Show children how they can invest in their communities by doing neighborhood rehabilitation or visiting older neighbors in heavy weather, says Coleman-Mortley. Be explicit about why these actions matter.
Bring your kids to the polls every time you vote. Do not just show them how to vote. Tell them who you choose and why. "Then talk about what happens if your candidate does not win," says Coleman-Mortley. "Being a good citizen also means finding out what you can do next," she says, while remaining open to the possibility that the candidate you did not vote for can also have a positive impact.
Teach your children the basics of how our government works through books such as "How the US Government Works" and free educational video games, as found on iCivics.org. For example, children and parents can play Counties Work, a simulation game in which players assume the role of district commissioner and learn first-hand how local governments influence citizens. The Teaching for Democracy website is a great source for building civic skills, even among older children. Without a strong foundation in terms of civic education, children might find it difficult to bring about change, says Kawashima-Ginsberg.
Teach the children how to stay informed and think critically about the messages they consume. Introduce them to trusted, kid-friendly news outlets such as PBS NewsHour Extra, Scholastic News, and Smithsonian Tween Tribune, and warn them of sources that distribute false information. Watch political ads on YouTube together and talk about whether the allegations are factual and how the candidates choose the candidates, says Coleman-Mortley. "Decrypting ads between real and false information is an important part of media literacy."
Help teens to form their own opinions on social issues. Validate their perspectives and encourage them to challenge courtesy with courtesy. Studies have shown that families who discuss current events and allow differences of opinion are more likely to be young adults who vote and are civic engaged than those who do not. When young people believe that their opinions matter, they create an awareness that they can influence people who have authority over them, says psychologist Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of the Making Caring Common project at Harvard University Achieving more can probably vote on the road.
Give young people an insight into how the government works by familiarizing them with local politics. Bring them to council meetings where issues are hotly debated, and allow them to meet politicians as people, says Kawashima-Ginsberg. When you know people, you are less willing to make a hasty judgment about their intentions, she says, and these premature assumptions about what our political leaders think or do will often be a cause of disappointment and replacement. Show them that politics is a chaotic, living process, not the ordinary laws that students read in their history books.
Help the youth to invest in their communities providing them with well-structured and meaningful opportunities to engage in activities that make a difference, be it through volunteering or as part of a political action group. Introduce them to people who have an impact on their communities, says Weissbourd, and be aware that, as a parent, you also model positive community engagement.
Make your family a "right of way". "Talk about the importance of being a voter," says Kawashima-Ginsberg, and help your children with sign-up logistics to vote. In some states, young people 16 and over can pre-register. When they turn 18, they can vote automatically. Pre-registration allows parents to answer questions and help with the sometimes confusing documents rather than relying on an overwhelming college student.
"Choosing should be a basic expectation that parents have for their children," adds Weissbourd. "Make it clear that your family believes it to be a committed citizen, a moral responsibility, because the lives of others – and the well-being of our community and our country – depends on it."
Jennifer Breheny Wallace is a freelance writer and mother of three children. You can follow her on Twitter @wallacejennieb,
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