Election Day is right around the corner and, while New Yorkers aren’t likely to be flooded by television commercials supporting President Obama or Governor Romney, the presidential contest will dominate the public conversation. As any parent can tell you, children hear everything, and while our political conversations usually occur with other adults, we need to find ways to involve our children. The next few weeks present an excellent opportunity to engage our youth in the political process and help prepare them for constructive engagement when they themselves begin to cast ballots.
To start with, we need to ask our children if they know that we will be voting for a president very soon. Social science research shows that children at a very young age have a sense of the president as a parent-like authority figure to the country–but they don’t know much more than that. They don’t know how the president was put into office or what his responsibilities are. For younger children in particular, it’s important to explain more fully what a president does and how one becomes elected. Once we explain that, we can engage our children in a multitude of ways.
Here are a few suggestions to involve your children in the political process these next few weeks:
Explain to them that voting is about making a choice. Identify age-appropriate political issues and policies and explain how different candidates have different ideas for addressing them. Let your children know an election is about choosing whose ideas you think are best for dealing with the issues that are important to you.
Talk about current events. At the breakfast or dinner table, carve out 15 minutes to talk about what happened in the world or the country that day. Try to focus on an issue that your child already has a natural curiosity for, whether it’s the environment, foreign countries, outer space, science, or education. Explain the context of the news for the day and then do your best to explain what the candidates’ perspectives are on those issues.
Attend a political event. Whether it’s a campaign rally, a speech, or a voter registration drive, bring your child to a political event so that he or she can understand what it means to be politically active and engaged in the political process. Let him or her see active, engaged, and passionate people. Children learn more when they can participate.
Give them a fun history lesson. Talk to your children about former presidents and some of their major accomplishments that they might already be familiar with. For instance, the roads and highways your family travels on for vacations and holidays were created by President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. Yellowstone National Park was created because of a law President Wilson signed almost 100 years ago to protect the natural environment.
Buy them books on the presidency and elections. There are so many great books and resources out there to explain the history of our electoral system. If your children show interest, take the next step and offer some extra reading. Check out these age-appropriate books: Smart About the Presidents by Jon Buller, Susan Schade, and Jill Weber; The Everything Kids’ Presidents Book: Puzzles, Games and Trivia–for Hours of Presidential Fun by Brian Thornton.
Take your children with you to vote. Exposing them to this civic duty at a young age will get them excited to vote on their own when the time comes. Let them participate in the actual event that you’ve been talking about for the last several weeks. Bring them into the polling place. Let them see the ballot. Explain to them how the voting machine works and how the votes are counted.
Tell them whom you’re voting for. You can tell your children who you are voting for and explain your choice. Use the discussions you had with your child about the issues that were important to them as a frame of reference when explaining your choice and the issues that are important to you. Explain that everyone gets to make up his or her own mind and make independent choices. Explain that when you vote, it’s your personal and private choice.
Younger voters have low participation rates, primarily because by the time they are capable of voting, they haven’t been socialized to participate. Engaging and involving our children in the political process now will make them more active and informed citizens when they reach voting age. The next 30 days present us with a tremendous opportunity to engage our children. Let’s not forget to include them while the debate rages!