Election year presents an opportunity for children to learn about and develop an interest in politics. But it shouldn’t be confined to the classroom. Experts suggest that when political issues are addressed in both the academic and domestic arenas, it has a lasting impact on future voters. To begin cultivating an interest in political affairs, parents should encourage family dialogue and take advantage of resources.
“Start with simple concepts children can understand,” says Fran O’Malley, curriculum specialist for the Democracy Project at the University of Delaware. “Ask, ‘who are the leaders or authority figures in our home? Our community? What kinds of jobs do they do?’ As children enter school, initiate conversations based on what they are learning in history or government class and go from there.”
This, he says, is all part of a scaffolding process that instills concepts and can be built upon over time. Richard Coe, representative for Kids Voting U.S.A., agrees.
“Talk with children about how government affects them right now through everyday things like safety regulations on water, mattresses, and toys. Or, money needed to make libraries and parks better,” says Coe, whose nonpartisan organization works to educate and engage future voters. “If you find that point of relevance and are consistent with these type conversations, most kids will take an interest.”
That’s how Jeffery Sullivan became engaged in politics. When he was still in elementary school, he developed a mentoring relationship with a family friend and local politician. Through their conversations, he learned about issues being addressed on the state and local level and how some of them directly affected his life.
“This roused his curiosity in political affairs, and by fourth grade he wanted to know more about local government, then county, then state, and eventually national administration,” says Linda Sullivan of her now 16-year-old son.
Jeffery was also an avid reader and with his collection of politically based children’s books, he honed his understanding of history and governmental affairs.
“There are so many good books out there that can be used as springboards for introducing kids of all ages to politics and elections,” says O’Malley. “One of my favorite is ‘Duck for President.’ ”
Dominique Downs likes that book, too.
“About a month ago my teacher read ‘Duck for President’ and afterward asked who would like to run for [class] president, so I raised my hand. So did others,” says the third-grade student. “We each picked a vice president, then drew pictures, came up with a slogan, and gave speeches to get people to vote for us.”
Political- and civic-oriented websites designed for children are good resources, too, as are newspapers and television shows that keep kids abreast of current events.
“I regularly read portions of the newspaper to my kids and we watch CNN together and then discuss what is happening,” says Dominique’s mother, Glenda Amponsah Tandoh. “Since my daughter is running for class president, she’s particularly interested in how the candidates are doing.”
Parents should also encourage letter writing.
“It’s a level of engagement every school-age child can get involved in,” says O’Malley. “And when they get responses back — which they usually do — it encourages them even more.”
Tandoh found this to be true. When her son was studying current events in sixth grade, he became concerned about an issue being addressed before congress. He and several other students shared their views with the teacher, who then suggested they write a letter to the governor.
“Before long we received a letter inviting us to come and share our views before state congress, which we did,” says the now 16-year-old Isaac Watkins. “After we returned, we received another letter thanking us for getting involved and saying that our views were being considered. This showed me that even though I can’t vote, I can still make a difference.”
Family visits to state and national historic and governmental sites can foster an interest in political affairs, as can a trip to the polls, so youngsters can learn about voting processes.
“That’s the whole point of my organization — we educate and prepare kids to be engaged voters,” says Coe. “Children go to the polls with their parents and vote, and the results are published in the newspapers.”
“When Jeffery has gone to the polls with me I’ve taken him into the booth and he’s seen how I may vote republican in one area and democrat in another,” says Sullivan.
“Later, I explain why I’ve chosen one candidate over another so he understands.”
Finally, consider family volunteering.
“Candidates are always looking for people to assist during campaign time and families are no exception,” says O’Malley. “Parents and children can help with neighborhood mailings, drop-off literature, distribute buttons, or put up campaign signs.”
Most important, remember that nurturing an interest in political affairs fosters responsible citizenship.
“Involving my kids in politics helps them to understand the world is bigger than just our home and community,” says Tandoh. “It also encourages them to think about issues they wouldn’t otherwise consider. I’m planting seeds now in hopes that one day they will step out and make positive changes their world.”
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.