Photograph by Christina Paciolla / AP / Shutterstock
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Nicole Flaherty and her children vote eary at the Burlington County ballot box in Cinnaminson, New Jersey.

Photograph by Christina Paciolla / AP / Shutterstock

How the election can spark civic engagement in kids

It’s not all about voting, and the lessons children learn can help them become responsible citizens.

Handmade posters are propped beside trays of brownies and cupcakes as kids entice passersby with chants of “Justice is delicious!” The monthly event, called Bake Sale for Justice, asks people to donate any amount in exchange for a sweet treat. In about four years, the Chicago group has raised over $24,000 for organizations such as March for Our Lives, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

“Being part of Bake Sale for Justice has definitely given the kids an awareness of other people’s realities,” says Anne Fogarty, who helped her 14-year-old daughter, Nora Fox, launch the group in November 2016. “They see what’s happening in the world—in the news—and understand how different issues impact different people. Most of all, they see that they can make change.”

The kids are getting a lesson in how to be civic-minded—which at its core means understanding the fundamentals of government and the issues facing their community. But for many, it’s also about valuing the rights of fellow citizens while taking action to protect the democratic process and promote social justice.

“Civics is an action-oriented experience,” says Amber Coleman-Mortley, director of social engagement at ICivics and creator of the podcast Let's K12 Better. “When you’re being civic you’re thinking about your relationship to other people and the larger society. What’s your responsibility? How can you make things better?”

Civics used to be a large part of a child’s school curriculum, but that started changing in 1957, when more emphasis was placed on science, engineering, and math after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. Today, only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S. government or civics.

But as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once said, “Knowledge about our democracy is not handed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.” These days, it’s often up to parents to encourage civic engagement in their children. And the empathy, respect, and concern for community that civic engagement teaches will help them become better adults.

“That’s not just something that happens when they turn 18,” says Mary Ellen Daneels, civics instructional specialist at the Illinois Civics Mission Coalition. “Kindergartners can contribute to their communities right now. Eighth graders can get in involved in elections right now. It’s just looking for those authentic opportunities for kids to do civics.”

With early voting numbers shattering records for the 2020 election, now’s a great time to introduce your child to what it means to be civic-minded. Here are some ideas to get started.

Model civic engagement

Whether it’s writing Get Out the Vote postcards, volunteering to work the polls, joining a peaceful protest, or digging in the community garden, modeling your own civic participation is the best way to instill those same ideals in your children. But nothing has more impact than voting yourself.

“The single biggest predictor of whether a young person votes is if they come from a family where their parents are voters,” says Sunshine Hillygus, professor of political science at Duke University and author of Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitude into Civic Action.

With that in mind, take your kids with you to vote or show them how to fill out a mail-in ballot, talk with them about your state’s voter registration process, research the obstacles that can make voting difficult, and share your personal reasons for voting. These are all ways to engage kids—even if they’re too young to cast a ballot.

“You want to let your kids know that you’re participating in civics,” Coleman-Mortley says. “So be a model citizen in your home. Join your PTA, take them to a city council meeting, canvas together for a political candidate. Show them the ways civics is happening around them and how you as a parent are participating.”

Understand other realities

Part of civic engagement is being able to understand someone else’s experience. “Take an evaluation of your community and talk about the different realities you see,” says Kerri Kennedy, co-author of Wake, Rise, Resist. “Encourage your kids to imagine other people’s realities. If you’re financially comfortable, what might it be like not to be financially comfortable in this area? If you’re straight, what might it be like to be LGBTQ in this area?”

Peter Levine, professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life, says that a willingness to understand diverse viewpoints is another important marker of being civic-minded. “It’s useful to show our children that it’s okay to disagree and that we benefit from getting to know people who have different values and beliefs,” he says. “As a parent, I would ask, ‘Did I model being engaged, but did I also model diversity in my interactions so my kids saw me wanting to interact with people who look and think differently from me?’”

Keep it local

National politics might get most of the attention, but local issues likely affect your child’s personal life much more—and can be easier to make a difference with. “National politics can be really alienating and dismissive and dramatic,” says Scott Warren, co-founder and CEO of Generation Citizen. “It’s super important, especially in this election context, to focus on local issues as well.”

Community-centered service and activism opportunities can provide children with a sense of control that might elude them on the national stage. Coleman-Mortley says to start with “what’s missing,” then figure out the civic action.

“Think about what you would love to change about your community,” she says. “Do we want to clean up the park? Let’s figure out how we can clean up the park. Do we need more diverse books in our school library? How can we partner with the PTA to have a book drive?”

One bonus is that civic participation on the community level can be an introduction to the larger political process; after all, you can’t start a town-wide composting program without permits and approvals from elected officials. That can be an organic way to help them understand how politics and elections impact their day-to-day lives.

Have some fun

Government and politics may not be the most scintillating subjects, but it’s easy to find the fun in learning about civic engagement. For instance, parents can tap into a child’s interests and passions to nurture civic-mindedness. “If kids love TikTok, make it a rule that every third or fourth [video] they make has to be about an issue they’ve researched,” Coleman-Mortley says.

Parents can also pull in the whole family to reinforce the value of civic engagement—for instance, by holding a weekly Family Night Showcase. “Each person chooses a topic and shares for three to seven minutes about it,” Coleman-Mortley says. “You want to challenge your children to explore their ideas and opinions and create the space to listen to those ideas and opinions.”

Kennedy agrees. “If you have an artsy kid, they can curate an art show related to some topic they’re interested in,” she says. “So if you have a kid who’s interested in the Black Lives Matter movement, they might want to create artwork that sheds light on the movement—or invite friends to submit some of their work—and have an art show on the front lawn.”

The options for fun, civic-minded family activities are endless. Head out with sidewalk chalk and write “Get Out the Vote” messages in your neighborhood. Read books together that spotlight different worldviews, social justice issues, and civil rights. Volunteer at your local food pantry, sign up for a cause-based Fun Run, or have a family documentary night.

“Being a good civic actor is about being able to think and look critically at the world,” Coleman-Mortley says. “It’s teaching kids the ability to say, ‘This is not quite right—what can I do about it?’”