Kids & Politics WHY IT COUNTSClean Up Your Act - HOW TO BE PRACTICAL & GET ORGANIZED
by Sue Henninger
Rochester has an impressive history of political activism and election season in the city and surrounding suburbs can be a lively, vocal time for people of all ages. The ongoing drama and debate of the political season provide ample opportunity to engage elementary and middle school aged kids, many of whom are just starting to define their personal ideals and find their own voices.
Civic Education Begins at Home
Barbara Grosh is the Director of Voter Services at the Rochester League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization that promotes voter registration and education throughout the United States. She believes it’s crucial for kids to begin learning about their role as American citizens as early as four years old. Teaching civics is a process that’s actually much simpler and less intimidating than it sounds. All adults need to do is lead by example, Grosh asserts. “Kids that don’t see the adults in their lives voting or becoming involved in the political process on some level are less likely to do it themselves,” she adds. “They’re not going to value this type of civic involvement if the people that matter to them don’t. They’ll grow up thinking, ‘It’s not something that people like us do’ which absolutely doesn’t have to be true.”
Admitting she was shocked when she first realized how high the levels of cynicism and defeatism had become and how low the voting rates were in certain sections of the city, Grosh is confident that this situation can be turned around. One of the keys to reversing the trend is encouraging young people’s interest in the political process right from the start. She suggests beginning where your child’s interest lies. If your son loves animals, talk to him about things like the Endangered Species Act, then spend some time researching what each candidate’s position is on animal protection legislation. Or, if your daughter’s favorite elderly relative has chronic health issues, talk to her about how the proposed health care initiatives might impact things such as the cost of Aunt Alice’s medication or the treatments she’s eligible to receive through her health insurance. “Talk about things they really care about, not issues that have been sanitized or trumped up for kids. Let them practice being a citizen whose voice really matters,” Grosh advises. These conversations have the added benefit of pointing out to kids that they shouldn’t always accept what they hear or read at face value and that today’s easy access to the Internet means there are many ways to research and validate or disprove statements made by politicians.
Just Do It!
Being civically involved doesn’t have to be all talk and no action. According to Grosh, kids make wonderful volunteers for all types of political and nonpartisan activism. Standing by Voter Registration tables at popular community events, they can reach out to passersby, who will often be more responsive to them. Kids can also accompany adults who are giving rides to polls or watch election results come in with family or friends. One of the easiest things kids can do annually is to go with an older friend or relative to the polls for primaries, school board, local, and national elections.
This simple commitment can reap long-term positive results, Grosh claims, adding that she’s always taken her own daughter, Rachel Brill, with her to vote. “We’d meet outside her elementary school classroom and go to our polling place which was right in her school. I’d hold her up and show her the levers I wanted to pull; then she’d get her ‘I Voted’ sticker.”
Rachel will be a college student this fall and Grosh is looking forward to showing her how to request her first absentee ballot, the next step in their political journey together.
New York State League of Women Voters Director of Youth Programs and Civic Education, Judie Gorenstein, observes that children who go into their polling place with significant others are more apt to register and vote themselves as adults. “It’s a great predictor,” she says. Emphasizing that voting is “not just a right, but a responsibility.” Gorenstein urges adults to add civic responsibility to the list of skills, such as practicing good manners and developing a strong work ethic, that they are already teaching to young people. “Kids already vote in their everyday lives,” she explains. “They might vote about what movie to see in school or at home about where to take a family vacation so they know firsthand that their vote can make a difference and that they can use it to influence what happens around them.” The parents’ job is to show them that this premise applies to greater society as well.
Ben Helphand is the co-founder of Gerrymander, a Chicago company that creates “fun, democracy-themed products.” He clearly recalls being taken to the polls each year by his parents as a child. “I have vivid memories of voting with them as well as of distributing Political yard signs and going door to door each fall,” he says adding, “If you’re not exposed to civics with your family in a hands-on way, where will you learn it?” These early lessons in democracy resulted in Helphand partnering with Paul Smith to create the first Election Day Advent Calendar in 2006, an item that proved so popular with the public that they’re still making it. Instead of chocolate, each window contains a nonpartisan piece of information that those opening it can read and discuss. “It’s designed to turn the weeks before an election into a season where we take time to remember why we’re voting and how important it is to have the right to vote,” Helphand explains. 2012 is the first year that the Election Day Advent Calendar will be accompanied by six different inserts, making it a great fit for families with kids of varying ages and political interests. He recommends beginning with the “Classic Calendar” but says that the Citizenship, Founders, and Constitution Calendars would also be appropriate for families with younger kids. With its “more cynical approach and funnier quotes”, the Radicals Calendar is a great fit for more politically savvy kids. These new inserts make the Advent Calendar “timeless” and Helphand encourages families to use them For local and school board elections as well as national ones and to create their own insert once they’ve used Gerrymander’s up!
Benefits for your Family
An important life lesson kids can absorb from civics education at home is that everyone gets a voice and that, even when you don’t agree with someone, it’s important to allow them to express their opinion. This skill, along with learning how to speak respectfully so others can really hear what you’re saying, can be harder to master than one might think. However, both of these are essential for children to learn if they want to be able to communicate effectively as adults.
Political and civic discussions enhance family life as well, says Grosh, speaking from her own experience with her daughter Rachel over the years. “I definitely feel like we’ve had a lot of important conversations where we asked questions and shared our feelings and opinions openly.” She adds, “Talking about government and political issues allows you to take the conversations you have with your kids to a deeper level along with providing opportunities for intellectual stimulation, moral growth, and achieving greater maturity. Plus they are definitely more rewarding than talking about homework or chores!”
Sue Henninger is a contributing writer to Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. She is a long-time member of the League of Women Voters in New York State.Visit her at www.fingerlakeswriter.com