Being politically engaged is not only good for society, but research suggests it’s good for individuals, too. “Voting and feeling a commitment to a community gives young people a bigger sense of purpose and builds their social network,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. A study last year in the journal Applied Developmental Science found that community engagement may provide mental health benefits for youth, while another recent study in the journal Child Development found that adolescents and young adults who voted, volunteered or engaged in activism had better life outcomes: They were more likely to stay in school longer and earned higher incomes than their peers.
So what can parents do to raise the next generation of voters to be informed and engaged? Experts say that civic education is a gradual process that starts early and builds through the years — and that parents play an important role in its development. Here are some practical tips for building civic skills and motivation in children of all ages:
Teach young children the behaviors of good citizenship, whether it’s at school, on the playground or in the home. Talk about how our positive and negative actions affect others, and why it’s important to treat classmates with care and respect. At home, assign chores and frame it as each person’s contribution to making the home better, says Amber Coleman-Mortley, senior digital media manager at iCivics, a nonprofit group that promotes civics education. Show children how to invest in their communities by organizing a neighborhood cleanup or visiting elderly neighbors during extreme weather, Coleman-Mortley says. Be explicit about why these actions matter.
Bring your children to the polls every time you vote. Don’t just show them how to vote; tell them whom you are voting for and why. “Then, talk about what happens if your candidate doesn’t win,” Coleman-Mortley says. “Part of being a good citizen is figuring out what you can do next,” she says, while still being open to the possibility that the candidate you didn’t vote for may make a positive impact, too.
Introduce children to the basics of how our government works through books such as “How the U.S. Government Works” and free educational video games such as those found on iCivics.org. For example, children and parents can play “Counties Work,” a simulation game in which players take on the role of a county commissioner and learn firsthand how local governments impact citizens. The website Teaching for Democracy is a great source for building civic skills in older children, too. Without a strong foundation in civic literacy, kids may have difficulty understanding how to effect change, Kawashima-Ginsberg says.
Teach children how to stay informed and think critically about the news they consume. Introduce them to reliable, kid-friendly news outlets such as PBS NewsHour Extra, Scholastic News and Smithsonian Tween Tribune, and warn them about sources that spread misinformation. Watch political ads together on YouTube and talk about whether the claims are factual and how smear ads make candidates look, Coleman-Mortley says. “Being able to decipher between truthful and false information in ads is an important part of media literacy.”
Help adolescents form their own opinions around social issues. Validate their perspectives and encourage them to challenge beliefs with civility. Research finds that families who discuss current events and allow disagreements are more likely to raise young adults who vote and are civically engaged than those who don’t. When young people believe their opinions matter, it creates a mind-set that they are capable of impacting people who have authority over them, says psychologist Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of the Making Caring Common project at Harvard University — one that will make them more likely to vote down the road.
Give teens a glimpse of how government works by introducing them to local politics. Take them to council meetings where issues are hotly debated, and allow them to get to know politicians as people, Kawashima-Ginsberg says. When you know people, you are less likely to make hasty judgment about their intentions, she says, and those hasty assumptions about what our political leaders think or will do are often a source of disaffection and disengagement. Show them that politics is a messy, living process, she says, not the neat laws that students read about in their history textbooks.
Help teens become invested in their communities by providing well-structured and meaningful opportunities for them to engage in activities that make a difference, whether it’s through volunteering or being part of a political action group. Introduce them to people who have made an impact in their communities, says Weissbourd, and be aware of whether you as a parent are modeling positive community involvement, too.
Make voting a “rite of passage” in your family. Have “the talk” about the importance of being a voter, says Kawashima-Ginsberg, and help your children with the logistics of registering to vote. Several states allow teens as young as 16 to preregister, so when they turn 18, they can automatically vote. Preregistration allows parents to answer questions and help with the sometimes confusing paperwork, instead of relying on an overwhelmed college student to navigate the process.
“Voting should be a fundamental expectation that parents have for their children,” adds Weissbourd. “Make it clear that your family believes being an engaged citizen is a moral responsibility because other people’s lives — and the well-being of our community and country — depend on it.”