Living in the perennial "battleground state" of Ohio, our family finds it nearly impossible to escape the upcoming presidential election. So it wasn't a surprise when my third-grade son came home from school and declared, "I was talking with some friends, and I've decided you should support the other candidate." He then proceeded to spout lines from the most frequently aired campaign commercials. Instead of immediately engaging my son in a point-by-point discussion of different policy issues, I took a broader perspective: his interest was a good launching point for a civics lesson.
The election process, especially in modern history, can make even the most devoted citizen feel a bit jaded or discouraged. But when you consider the election cycle as a learning opportunity for your family, it takes on a new purpose. Through presenting the election process as a fundamental exercise in freedom and democracy, you are building the foundation for a lifetime of civic participation and awareness for your child. This election year, try these easy ways to engage and interest your child in government and civics.
Discuss the upcoming election and why we vote. While voting may seem like a fairly common exercise we (hopefully) do every election, to a child the idea of each adult having a say in our leadership is inspiring. Darby Kennedy, former government teacher and homeschooling mom to two, maintains, "I think it is important to help children understand that not everyone around the world has the same rights that we do." Although your preschooler might not be ready for a discussion of the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship, young elementary-aged children can grasp the contrast.
Focus on a local issue or a specific contest. To make an election more meaningful, choose something that interests your child. Kennedy contends, "Parents should talk to their kids about local political issues that might affect them—maybe an environmental issue or something about education. Children want to know that they can have an impact on something, and they need to see that voting (as an adult) is one way to make an impact."
If there is no pertinent local issue on your ballot, you can explain why you are choosing to support a particular local, state or federal candidate, and focus on what makes you favor that candidate, using simple, age-appropriate terms such as "We support this candidate because we agree with her position on ___________."
Explain that reasonable people can disagree on issues and candidates. Wittenberg University political science professor Ed Hasecke, father of three school-age children, shares, "We [take] the approach of explaining what we believe and acknowledging that others have different views." Hasecke continues, "I think it is important to make sure that parents model that people can disagree about things like politics without hating those with different views. Showing that honest disagreement is a part of life ... is an important civic lesson that is essential for a healthy democracy."
Vote! When Election Day arrives (or prior to Election Day, if you have an absentee ballot), involve your children in the voting process. Hasecke says, "We have always taken the kids to vote with us." Kennedy agrees. "I think that parents have to show kids that voting is one of those things you 'just do.'"
Don't underestimate the power of your child being with you when you press buttons or pull a lever to vote. And of course, be sure to pick up an "I Voted!" sticker (if available) for you and your child on the way out of the polls.
Share the election results. Let your child know the election results the following day, using words of grace if the other candidate wins or the issue you supported fails to pass. In fact, if your vote falls on the losing side, it is an opportunity to show how democracy continues, even if your favorite candidate did not prevail. Explain to your child that the newly elected official still represents the entire population and that you can maintain your freedom of expression through writing letters and communicating your views.
While the ultimate goal of the election is choosing leaders and deciding issues, as a parent you can also view it as a great series of "teachable moments," leading your child toward civic participation.
As for my eight-year-old son, I am encouraged by his interest in this election, which he must be considering again, since he just told me he has changed his position on the presidential candidates again! I hope it is a sign of his future as an avid civic participant. For now, I revel in guiding him and his younger brother through this election process and viewing it all from a child's perspective.