During an election year, politics are bound to be a topic in your home. Children learn a lot about the subject simply by listening to our conversations, but have you ever wondered how to teach your children about politics with more intention? Children need to understand the privileges and responsibilities that come with democracy so they’re ready to become active participants in the political process as adults.
If we want our children to grow up to be thoughtful and engaged citizens, we should help them be part of the political system now. Here’s the big not-so-secret: Kids know what’s going on. They also have the capacity to be deeply upset by it. What we call “social justice” boils down to what children would call “fairness.” As any parent knows, kids are keenly aware of who gets more cookies or less praise. Social issues like racism and sexism are complex, but they can be broken down into concepts kids can understand if we put in the effort. Since they already sense politics in the world, now we adults need to help kids understand them.
Teaching Preschoolers about Politics
Young children might not have the cognitive ability to understand our complex political system, but they’re very aware of issues of justice and fairness. Talk with your young child about the role of the president: to lead our country and help make decisions. Discuss the idea that we vote for leaders who we think will do the best job. Try creating voting opportunities for your children and the whole family by holding votes on where to go out to eat, what family game to play, etc.
Young children readily absorb our views on democracy, political activism, and social justice, mostly through what we do and say. Take your child with you to the voting booth or political rallies. Visit historical museums and state buildings. Get involved in local issues that matter to you, such as improving schools, working on conservation efforts, or feeding the homeless. While not directly tied to politics, children learn a great deal about what you value from what you spend your time on.
Teaching Elementary-Age Children about Politics
Elementary-age children can begin to understand political parties and their platforms. They can also learn about democracy, patriotism, and American history. At this age, children often become aware of political messaging. Talk with your children about negative political advertisements on television and social media. Share your own views and help them understand how to research the issues to separate fact from fiction.
Elementary-age children enjoy visiting the voting booth, historical museums, and state buildings, just as preschoolers do. At this age, though, children can begin to understand abstract concepts. Learning is deepened as they read and explore concepts independently. Children may begin to develop their own passions and interests around activism and volunteerism. They may be interested in attending political debates or other events.
Teaching Teenagers about Politics
Teaching a teen about politics outside of the classroom is incredibly important, as they are at the rising age to vote for themselves for the first time. Consider having your teen join you for some of your favorite late-night hosts, like The Daily Show or Real Time with Bill Maher. Comedy and politics go hand-in-hand. With comedians on both the right and the left poking fun at political issues, there's never a dull moment. Simply showing your teen the fun side of politics may motivate them to stay informed.
Teenagers across the country are getting involved in the issues they care about, and your child need be no exception. In Maine, a group of teenagers formed The League of Young Voters and pushed through an initiative that promises to erase up to $32,000 of college debt for every student who stays in the state after graduation. Your child could be next to make a difference.
Ask your teen what issues they are passionate about. Chances are there is something in the community, nation or the world that has them fired up. It doesn't have to be world peace or funding the cure for cancer. Your teen can start small, as long as it's something which resonates with them. Maybe they are sick of getting busted for skateboarding downtown and wants to see the municipal government invest in a skate park. Instill in them that there is a way to make a difference, it just takes a bit of work.
Important Information All Kids Should Know
Despite age, there are a few key topics that all kids can start learning about when it comes to politics.
- Freedom relies on widespread participation in the political process.
- Politics does not provide spiritual nurture nor does our leaning necessarily say anything about our standing with God. The writer of the Declaration of Independence acknowledged that The Creator endowed us with fundamental rights, not the government, and not one political party.
- Children must learn to think for themselves. Too many people have given up critical analysis in favor of simply parroting other people’s opinions as their own.
- It's important to listen to both sides of the argument. Teach your kids to listen to both sides of a debate and to pay attention to people they think they will disagree with. We must learn how to cultivate multiple sources when gathering information.
- If children don’t understand something about politics, they should always ask. Good questions reveal truth or the lie. Either way, good question asking is critical to a political process that works
- People who disagree with us are not by definition un-American. We must teach our children that there is always more to learn, that people who disagree with us aren’t always wrong, and that narrow-mindedness is the shortest path to political oppression.
Learning about U.S. history and politics doesn’t have to be dry or dull. Include your child in thoughtful conversations and get involved in community events. Read high-quality children’s literature together and visit historical sites that interest you. These simple steps can help your children become civic-minded adults who embrace the political process.