As millions go to the polls today in one of the most dramatic and polarizing elections of our time, some parents will find that their teenagers are still more interested in weekend plans, sports games and even their homework than in the nation's political process.
Of course, there are those civic-minded, activist teenagers who have tracked the tracking polls, dissected every debate and even knocked on doors as Young Democrats or Young Republicans, even though they aren't voting age.
And this year pundits are predicting that young voters will participate in record numbers. "More young people have been drawn in to this election than in many, many years, probably since 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War," says Daniel M. Shea, director of the Center for Political Participation based at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. In fact, Shea even worries that some kids are too invested and that after the election they may feel devastated and anxious if their presidential candidate loses.
But there's also no escaping the fact, even in this highly charged time, that for some young teens politics is solely the business of adults and has little connection to their lives.
"Fifteen- and 16-year-olds have a very limited view of history and politics because they have lived so little of it, so they have a hard time getting a perspective on history and political change," says George Vlasits, an American history teacher at Montgomery Blair High School.
If you want your kid to grow up to be part of the voting public, Vlasits and others don't recommend long sermons on the meaning of democracy or forcing kids to read the op-ed pages. There are, however, some other ways to try to get teenagers interested.
It's important to ask them about their specific political interests, says Shea -- you have to find "what trips their trigger."
"Teens don't really care about the privatization of Social Security at this point, but they may be concerned about minimum wage, pollution in streams, or jobs," Shea says.
There are, of course, specific issues that directly affect young people, such as education costs and the possibility of reinstating the draft.
"Teens are very present-oriented, so future-oriented conversations won't have as much impact," says David Walsh, author of "Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen" (Free Press, 2004).
Another tactic is to take your children to the polls. That's possible in the District and Virginia though Maryland does not allow children over age 12 in the booths. Carl Fillichio, vice president of the D.C.-based Council for Excellence in Government, noted that a 2002 survey by the group found that 18-to-25-year-olds were twice as likely to vote if their parents took them to the polls when they were young. He also suggests that parents encourage their teens to watch the election returns with them tonight and try to relate those returns to issues teens care about.
And if there's any segment of the population where this year's intense celebrity involvement may have made a difference, it's non-voting teens.
Betsy Taylor, president of the Takoma Park-based nonprofit Center for a New American Dream, says that her son, Gus May, 14, "never saw the relevance of political action," despite the fact that his parents have been involved in political campaigns since the 1970s and are currently involved in the peace and environmental movements. Gus says he always preferred listening to music, making rap beats on his computer or playing football and basketball, even though his parents and sister "are always talking about politics."
Then he began hearing and reading about rap and hip-hop artists such as Eminem, Jay-Z, Ludacris, among others, speaking out about the importance of voting. He began asking his parents about the war in Iraq and watched the presidential debates, and then discussed them with his parents. "He's moved from the sports pages to the front page," Taylor says.
Taylor also suggests that good books might pique a teen's interest in social issues. The author of "What Kids Really Want That Money Can't Buy" (Warner Books, 2004), she says she would like to see students exposed to works that focus on people who've "risked something for the common good."
Community service projects could also be helpful. By volunteering at a local homeless shelter or watershed-protection group, teenagers can have a direct impact and also develop empathy for others, says Taylor. Such projects "automatically lead to a desire to get to the root of a problem and really change things, and therefore to get involved politically," she says.
Here's one place where peer pressure can be a positive thing, says Walsh, also the president of the Minnesota-based National Institute on Media and the Family. Encourage teens to get involved in school- or church-based political groups, he says. That way, they have a peer group to participate with, which for many teens is what makes the activity fun. "Doing things with friends is important for all of us, but it's extremely important for teens," Walsh notes.
Whatever you do, the experts say, the chances for success are greatest when the adults themselves are politically interested and active.
"Parental influence is perhaps the single most significant factor in determining the political outlook of children and the likelihood that they'll participate as adults," says William A. Galston, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, based at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. Conventional wisdom, which holds that teens don't pay attention to what their parents say, is wrong, Galston asserts.
"They may pretend to be not listening, but they actually are," he says.
Mychal Massie, a National Advisory Council member for the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research, believes parents have an obligation to instill civic pride, duty and responsibility in their children. "Chances are if parents are excited about baseball, football, or tennis, then your kids will be, too," and the same goes for politics and voting, says Massie, who is also a syndicated columnist and talk show host in Pennsylvania.
Massie and others add that for parents to have real impact, their focus can't be limited to a week before Election Day. Rather, it's a longer process during which teens are exposed to political conversations in the family room or at the dinner table.
Cautions Galston, "If after 14 years and 11 months of indifference, parents expect to press a button and think the teen will be interested, that's gonna be a tough sell."