Talking about politics with your kids may not come naturally, but as parents we're responsible for raising the next generation of voters. Here’s how to encourage your kids to form their own political views, respect others’ opinions, and—most importantly—vote.
Because they live in Washington Heights, Steve Snow and his family often shuffle through the 168th Street subway station. If it’s cold weather, they usually see at least a few homeless individuals curled up on the platforms -- a sight that sparks the curiosity of his 12-year-old daughter and tends to bring on a slew of why’s for Dad to tackle. “She’ll say, ‘Daddy, why are those people sleeping there?’” Snow says. He’ll explain that they don’t have any money to afford a house or apartment, which leads to “Why don’t they have any money?”, which in turn prompts a conversation about the lack of jobs in our currently slow economy.
While Snow says his daughter is too young to discuss political parties or have any interest in the presidential primaries, he takes advantage of teachable moments like this to get her thinking about the bigger picture. “We don’t talk about politics in the narrow sense, we talk about issues,” says Snow, a professor of politics at Wagner College on Staten Island and The City College of New York in Harlem. “The thing is about young people in general, the mechanics of voting and how elections function tend to be the sort of stuff they’re least interested in because it’s sort of invisible.”
It’s common knowledge that young people are the least likely group to hit the polls come election time. According to figures compiled by The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a project of Tufts University, less than a quarter of eligible voters ages 18-29 cast their ballot in the last midterm election. Fast-forward to this year’s Republican primaries (New York’s takes place April 24) and the average youth turnout so far dips to below 7 percent. While these low stats aren’t exactly surprising, they’re not ideal. And it becomes a bit more alarming when paired with a look at political education in our schools. According to the Civics 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” high school seniors across the nation showed a decline over the last decade in the knowledge and skills critical to the responsibilities of citizenship in America’s constitutional democracy. The report, released last spring, showed that 64 percent of 12th graders performed at or above the “basic” level (marked by the ability to interpret a political cartoon), while only 24 percent scored at or above “proficient” (the ability to define “melting pot” and argue whether or not the phrase applied to the U.S.) and a mere 4 percent scored as “advanced,” meaning they could compare U.S. citizenship requirements to those of other countries.
“I can think of no task more important for the future of American democracy than teaching young people about our system of government and encouraging them to get involved in politics and community service,” says former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton in the foreword of Engaging Young People in Civic Life (2009, Vanderbilt University Press), a collection of essays that address how to best provide opportunities for enhancing civic learning and forming lasting civic identities in young Americans. With poor showings in the classroom and at the polls, the pressure falls even more on parents to mold young citizens.
Mark Svensson wasn’t much interested in politics or public service opportunities when he was a student at Pearl River High School in Pearl River a few years ago. It wasn’t until he enrolled at Rockland County Community College and attended a guest lecture by Simon Deng, a former slave in Sudan, that his outlook changed. “He told an amazing story about what he went through and how he overcame it, and he’s stronger now today and speaking out against human trafficking. His point was that it only takes one person to help make a difference. That really stuck with me and made me think about what I’m doing to make a difference in my community,” Svesson recalls.
Now a senior preparing to graduate from Georgetown University, the Orangeburg native has attended several student engagement sessions at the White House and founded a series of roundtables in Rockland County that bring high school and college students together with local officials to discuss important issues in the community -- showing young people that they can make an impact on government decisions. “I think young people -- and adults, too -- think ‘What is my one vote really going to do?’” says Svensson, a registered Independent. “But even in presidential elections, just a few votes either way can really make a difference.”
Making young people feel engaged is the key to get them voting, says Kate Kelly, a mom of three and former Larchmont resident (she moved to the Larchmont section of Los Angeles last year) who founded AmericaComesAlive.com, a website that explores little-known stories of America and its citizens. As a kid, Kelly remembers working on local campaigns with her parents, and her now-grown children vividly remember tagging along to the public protest in New Rochelle against a new Ikea store that would have required the town to widen its streets (and shrink residents’ yards). Years later, Kelly is a registered voter who casts her ballot in each local and national election, and her youngest child works for a political website.
It’s clear that political participation starts at home and in the community. “Taking them to vote or to participate in any type of community activity you do is great. And it doesn’t need to be election-related,” Kelly says. “If they help out when you volunteer at a community learning center or a senior citizens home, you are broadening their view of the world and giving them the tools to think about community decision-making.”
And beginning with the 2008 election, we’ve started to see the effect of a new force of engagement: social media. Many attribute higher youth engagement in the last election (youth turnout increased by 2 percent overall) to candidates incorporating social media into their campaign strategies. “The best thing in the world is for [young people] to see that activism makes a difference, and Facebook and Twitter are beginning to show them that it does,” Kelly says. “Regardless of how one feels about the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood story, what all Americans observed was that expressing one’s opinion could make a huge difference. And you could do it through your phone or keyboard.”
While a study published in the American Political Science Review in 2005 suggests that “genetics plays an important role in shaping political attitudes and ideologies” (the study analyzed political attitudes of twins in the U.S. and Australia), Snow attributes the sway kids experience to the fact that parents are the number-one role model in a child’s life.
“Children are socialized to their parents’ political views, so it’s inevitable that they’ll share their opinions,” he says, adding that he expects his daughter to mimic his Independent views -- at least until she hits college. “That’s what college is for and why higher education is so important: It introduces critical thinking and teaches kids to really think about these things rather than just repeating them.”
Svensson says he grew up in a mostly nonpartisan household where his parents didn’t push him toward one party or another. “For all young people, that’s the ideal way to grow up, with an open mind to both parties and all ideas. I’m appreciative of that now,” he says. Now that he’s older, Svensson and his parents sometimes disagree on certain issues, but they’ve learned to avoid talking candidates and focus more on the issues of the moment -- like government help for student loans. “The roles have reversed a little bit since I was a kid,” he says. “If they bring up an initiative that I have more knowledge about, I’ll fill them in. There’s never too much of a partisan tone to the conversations, though.”
While a nonpartisan approach may seem ideal, recent studies show that growing up in a bipartisan household may have its benefits, as well. According to a study published earlier this year in The Journal of Politics, “Those whose parents are divided politically tend to become more, not less, engaged in politics.” The study goes on to suggest that this effect might be the result of “proportional representation” in the household -- or, in layman’s terms, the fact that two sides of an issue are represented equally in the home, sparking discussion and greater awareness and understanding of the issues.
Whether or not you’re dressing your little one in a “My Mama’s for Obama” or “Proud to Be a Republican” T-shirt, keep in mind that your kids are channeling your political views and using them to start forming their own (and/or repeating them to their peers on the playground -- so play nice!).
Agreeing to Disagree
From the playground to the office Christmas party, your kids will undoubtedly run into others who don’t share their political opinions as they grow. And while heated debates are commonplace in the media, it’s important to teach kids to keep their political tempers under control. “We all have friends who vote differently than we do, so the important thing is to treat all people with respect and talk about how it’s okay to still be friends with people who see the political world differently,” Kelly advises. “If your family TV set is primarily set on Fox or MSNBC, that’s fine, but you need to explain that many of the reporters on each of these channels are advocating a political view and that it’s good to check what the other ‘side’ is saying. The same is true of newspapers. Those who follow the New York Times should check the editorial and op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal some of the time.”
Snow agrees that teaching tolerance for other political views is hugely important for a child’s development. He suggests discussing issues in an impersonal way, so they’re not attached to or defining any one individual. “If you’re talking about same-sex marriage, oftentimes I think a 12- or 13-year-old will say ‘Well, what’s wrong with that?’ Instead of me saying there isn’t a good reason, I would consciously make the effort to explain there are people who interpret their religious scriptures to say this isn’t allowed,” Snow says. “You want to get her to think about it herself, not just say ‘That’s right because I say it’s right.’”
Tips for Parents
Following are a few more tips on how to make sure your child gets a well-rounded introduction to politics -- and feels empowered to make her opinion count once she’s eligible to vote.
Vote. That age-old phrase, “kids learn by example,” is as true in the political realm as it is in other facets of life. As your child’s number-one role model, make sure you’re registered to vote and that you head to the polls regularly. Let your kids know when you’re going to vote and which candidate you’re casting your ballot for. If possible, bring your child with you so he can become familiar with the process.
Don’t talk politics, talk issues. “Politics can be boring for kids, and they may not have a frame of reference for it,” says Mary Jane McKittrick, author of the children’s book Election Day, part of the Boomer and Halley series. But issues, like whether the school year should be longer or why they take standardized tests at school, can be discussed easily because they are relevant to the children’s lives. Ask questions like “Do you think it’s fair that the rules are this way?” or “If you could make the rules, what would you do?” It will get them thinking and caring about democracy and their role in it.
Connect laws to their lives. Kids -- like the rest of us -- encounter government in action practically every day, McKittrick says. When there is road construction on the way to school, it represents tax dollars being spent to improve the community. When a new playground opens, or old equipment is replaced with new equipment, it can be traced back to the local government. When they see campaign signs all around during an election cycle, it’s another opportunity to explain what it’s all about.
Let them lead the way. Take advantage of the teachable moments that arise when your child starts asking questions. “The thing about kids is, if you start talking about something they haven’t asked about -- if they don’t open up the conversation themselves -- it turns into a sort of lecture and they’ll tune you out,” Snow says.
Learn with them. If your child asks questions to which you don’t have an answer, take time to look up the information together by surfing the web or doing a little research in the library. Capitalize on your kids’ natural curiosity to help them build a solid base of knowledge on how our political system works. Bonus: You’ll learn something, too!
Keep them connected. Encourage kids to keep up on current events by getting them a subscription to an age-appropriate magazine or website like Time for Kids or KidzTimez (kidztimez.com). They can also check out icivics.org, a nonprofit group founded by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that teaches students civics through web-based games and other tools.
Show your support. When your child shows an interest in public service or a political group -- even if it’s not totally in line with your own views -- make sure you back her up. “If your child wants to run for a position on student council or in a club, encourage her!” Kelly says.
Find politics boring? Imagine what your kids think. Check out our fascinating presidential trivia (example: which president had a pet alligator?) and get your kid engaged!