Elections can turn nasty. There's name-calling, truth-stretching, and dirty tricks — exactly the type of behaviors we tell our kids not to engage in with family and friends. And yet we all want to raise good, civic-minded citizens who feel confident doing their part in a healthy democracy. It can be hard to reconcile the two.
While your instinct might be to put up a wall between your kids and politics, that might send the wrong message: that you don't value your civic duties. Instead, it's better to try and tackle the subject head-on, maximizing the ways to be a good citizen while minimizing the bad. "It's important to communicate that civic participation is a value for your family, and separate it from all of the negative things about politics," says D. Sunshine Hillygus, Ph.D, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University and author of Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitude into Civic Action.
If you don't do it at home, your kids probably won't pick it up in school. "Because of all the polarization today, civic education has boiled down into what we call bubble-sheet civics," Dr. Hillygus says. "We memorize facts and figures about history. That is very disconnected from the information that's actually need to participate in civic life." Here, some positive ways to get your kids active and involved.
Take your kids to the voting booth with you.
It's not enough to just talk about your civic values with your children; you have to show them that you walk the walk, too. "The single biggest predictor of the participation of young people is the participation of their parents," Dr. Hillygus says. "It's so important for young people to see their family participating in civic life. It is more important than anything they'll be exposed to in school or other places." While every state allows parents to bring children under 18 to the voting booth with them, states vary in regulations (some place restrictions on how many kids can go to the polls, for example), so you might want to contact your county clerk first and find out the rules and regulations.
Not only does voting with your kids prove to them you value your role in democracy, it also familiarizes them with the process, which will help them later on when they turn 18 and are eligible to vote themselves.
Discuss current events around the table.
Again, since politics can be so ugly, it might be natural to try and shield your kids from the knock-down, drag-out aspects of the political process. But if they're not getting their information from you, it'll filter to them through other sources. "We found that children as young as 5 were able to report some information from the 2016 election, and much of it appeared to gleaned from television, radio, peers, and conversations that were overheard rather than directed at them," says Rebeccia Bigler, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Dr. Bigler's study, done in conjunction with researchers at the University of Kansas, University of Texas at Tyler, University of Kentucky, and Whitman College, found that children are interested in elections and politics, but have huge gaps in their knowledge. "My advice to parents is to check in with their children frequently about the topic," she says. "Parents can ask children whether they are interested in election-related events, like debates or conventions, and what they've heard and think about candidates or issues. Parents can then be responsive to their children's interests and opinions, correct misinformation, and share their own values."
Try not to shield your kids from conversations about hot topics outside the home, either, since they can spark discussions. "School systems are very nervous about talking about politics because they fear what parents will do if they hear that their kids are talking about controversial issues at school," Dr. Hillygus says. "Don't discourage kids from being exposed to controversial ideas and political issues. Use it as opportunity for conversation about these topics." The more parents are open to hashing these issues out with their parents, regardless of anyone's views, the more kids see participation about civic life modeled at home.
Find ways for them to volunteer to support an issue they care about.
If you want to get them to participate in civic life without necessarily getting wrapped up in politics, volunteering is a good way to give kids get first-hand experience improving their towns and helping out their neighbors — and there are many reasons to start young.
"Getting involved with a cause can be transformational at any age — but as kids, it’s particularly powerful, because their canvas is still being painted," says Laura Plato, Chief Solutions Officer at Volunteer Match, which pairs up people and volunteering opportunities. "Volunteering exposes us to situations, points of view, and communities we might not normally encounter in the course of our daily lives. And that can help instill a sense of interconnectedness and empathy that becomes a through-line in our lives."
Craig Kielburger, co-founder of the WE Movement — an organization that enables youth and families to volunteer, and whose WE Charity arm is the first-ever holder of the Good Housekeeping Humanitarian Seal — says that getting involved is life-changing, with long-lasting benefits."Volunteering is habit-forming," he says. "Chicago-based Mission Measurement found that young people who participate in WE Schools programs are seven times more likely to start their own campaign to solve a social problem, and 80 percent of participants volunteered an average of 150 hours a year after completing the service-learning program."
Not only does it spark a desire to take on new challenges, helping out offers personal benefits. "Volunteering builds critical ‘soft skills’ — from teamwork, leadership, and communication to problem-solving skills and self-confidence," Kielburger says. "Helping others is scientifically proven to lower stress and anxiety, forge relationships that reduce the sense of isolation, and assist young people in finding meaning and identify with issues larger than themselves."
The easiest way to start the habit is when kids are toddlers, doing projects that the whole family can enjoy together. "That's the Golden Age when children want to do exactly what their parents do," he says.
Plato adds kids that age love doing arts and crafts projects like making cards for veterans, or decorating shoeboxes full of supplies for families in need. "It’s also wonderful to see adults take their little ones along on an awareness walk, park clean-up, or trail maintenance day, even if they can only ride along," Plato says. "It’s still such a great way to begin exposing kids to service-centered gatherings."
Plato offers an important addendum: "It’s ok to make it fun! So often we think community service needs to be serious, and while it’s often about serious topics, that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t experience joy while we help others."
Teach them to spot "fake news" and decode the claims in political ads.
Since they've grown up around technology their whole lives, it may seem like young people have the digital world all figured out. In reality, kids aren't being taught how to find trustworthy information online, and they aren't adept at figuring it out on their own. A study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education done after the last election found that 82 percent of middle schoolers couldn't tell the difference between a news story and an advertisement. (And 59 percent of adults couldn't, either.)
"Students tend to outsource their judgment to technology and their friends," says Howard Schneider, executive director of Stony Brook University's Center for News Literacy. "They confuse rank in a Google search with reliability, which is not the case. Students confuse popularity — the number of likes, retweets, celebrity endorsements, or what’s 'trending' — with reliability. They confuse the sender of the information with the source, so they will trust information coming from a friend — or a popular YouTube influencer — without scrutinizing it themselves."
Schneider says the good news is that media literacy skills can be taught, and that more and more schools are picking up the cause. But since education is also slow to adapt, he also suggests telling kids to check their news sources by asking these three questions:
- Does the news source routinely attempt to verify the information in stories? Look for fact-based evidence to support the main points of the story.
- Is the news source independent of special interests? You don’t want to rely on news from a source that may be biased, such as a political organization, a sports league, or an advocacy group.
- Are the reporters or authors accountable, and are they clearly identified by name and outlet? Check to see if they work for a recognizable news organization, or if have professional credentials and take responsibility for their work
"If you can’t find all three, I would be suspicious of the source," he says. And parents also need to model responsible media behavior, which means being careful about what you share on your own news feed.
Ideally, discerning how media influences us should start early on, before kids are even allowed on the internet. "Young children need to develop a vocabulary for media literacy early in life," says Renee Hobbs, Ed.D., director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island. "Use precise language when discussing media, distinguishing between movies, TV shows, animation, and advertising. Talk about the feelings and ideas they have when watching or using their favorite media. Ask children to create photos that depict feelings, and notice how lighting, color, design, and the choice of subject convey ideas, information, and feelings." Schneider adds that books like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs can show how a story changes depending on who is telling it.
Walk them through the voter registration and voting process.
For someone who's already registered to vote and has voted in the same polling place for years, it's easy to forget that voting is a learned skill, and it's one that's often not taught to people who are recently eligible to vote.
"There's a lot of people who think the reason young people aren't voting is because they're not interested," Dr. Hillygus says. "The reality is those young people are are, in fact, as interested in politics as older people, but young people don't follow through on their civic attitudes." And that's often because they don't know how (although if you've been taking them with you to vote, they might have a better idea).
"It is incredibly important to share not just civic values, but the very practical information about the process of voting," Dr. Hillygus says. "They need to understand the fact that you have to register a certain number of days in advance. The fact that, in some states, you're going to have to bring an ID, and what kind of ID qualifies. The fact that it's on a Tuesday, and so you have to put it on your calendar and figure out a time during the day to go to the polls. These kinds of obstacles tend to be much more consequential for younger people." College students have admitted to Dr. Hillygus they find the process too complicated, and they're embarrassed by how confused they are, so they don't ask for help.
The optimistic news is, once they cast that first vote, the experience is likely to stick with them. There's an often-cited study that says people who vote in the first three elections they're eligible for will turn them into lifetime voters; Dr. Hillygus says the news is even better than that. "There's evidence once you get someone across the hurdle to vote once, that they're significantly more likely to vote from then on out," she says. "It's just about getting someone into the ballot box that first time." And if you haven't been a regular voter yourself and are interested in your own first trip to the ballot box, start by figuring out how to register in your state here.
More on Navigating the 2020 Election as a Family
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