Let’s face it. Politics is everywhere in our country right now. Ads are on TV, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and billboards. Signs supporting candidates are in yards, windows, and on bumpers. The 24-hour news cycle is breathlessly covering every single twist and turn of elections and stories about current elected officials.
There’s no possible way to avoid the subject of politics with kids. So let’s lean into political education. Let’s actively engage in talking about how politics shape culture and vice versa. Let’s talk about the important role of civic duty and all of the beautiful and nasty things that can come tumbling out of it. So how do we bring our kids into the conversation?
The Cold Hard Facts
- Only 23% of 8th graders perform at or above the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam.
- The youngest voters (Ages 18-29) are consistently the age group least likely to vote in any election.
- Women and men of color represent 39% of the U.S. population, but only 11% of our elected officials.
Talking Points by Age
At this stage, it’s mostly about leading by example and laying the groundwork for future conversations. They’re watching and absorbing everything you do. Start by incorporating democracy into choices your family makes. If you’re trying to decide if you’re going to go to the park or library together, take it to a vote. Explain how a majority of votes will win and allow everyone to make their case for what they want.
It might be difficult to understand at first, but they’ll soon understand how healthy debate is a good thing. Another simple way to be a role model for your kid is to bring them with you when you vote.
Questions are an important part of any kid’s life. They’ll definitely have their own, but they’ll also enjoy being asked them as well. Here are a few topics you can start to ask questions about to get them thinking and a conversation started.
This could be about political ads or any ad for that matter.
- How did that ad make you feel? Do you think the ad was trying to make you feel a certain way? Why or why not?
- What kind of music did that ad have? Why did they pick that kind of music?
- What did you see in that ad? Why did they have those images in it? Did they help you understand what they were trying to say?
- Was that ad positive or negative? How can you tell? Why do you think they made that choice?
- Start with the concept of bullying in general. What do you think it is? How can you recognize it? Is it bad? Why/why not?
- How would bullying help or hurt a political candidate?
- Why would a campaign choose to bully an opponent?
- Does a political campaign make bullying or name-calling ok? Why/why not?
At this age, kids are trying to figure out their place in the world. How do I fit in? What are the right things to wear and say? How do I get others to like me? Now is the time to help them balance those desires with being their own person and thinking for themselves. Here are some ways you can approach that.
The News + Misinformation
Where information comes from is very important. Just because a classmate told you something doesn’t make it true. The same goes for the news—the source of information matters.
- Who made this post/article? Are they familiar or reliable?
- Who is this written for?
- Who benefits from this information and who is harmed by it?
- Has any important information been left out?
When you boil it down, polls are like mini votes that attempt to paint a picture for what the real election results will be. They let us know what people are thinking at a certain point in the process. However, keep these nuances in mind:
- Sample size matters. The more people asked, the clearer picture you can get.
- Who gets asked matters. Results can be skewed if polls only ask certain types of people.
- Poll question-wording matters. Leading questions, confusing statements, or not including all candidates running can significantly affect responses.
- Polls are never perfect. They can never substitute for the actual voting process.
So much of the high school years are all about laying the groundwork for transitioning into adult life. They’re learning to take on more responsibility and to think about the bigger picture in the world. Here are some topics for you and your teenager to dig into together:
Your Civil Right: Registering + Voting
Just like getting a driver’s license, registering to vote and casting your first ballot is a significant right of passage. Go online together to officially register them to vote. Talk about how registering determines their polling location and what local offices they can vote for.
How can your family celebrate this moment in their life that marks it as a significant milestone? You could go out to dinner after they cast their first-ever vote. You could celebrate with a birthday-style party, including cake and decorations. Or you could have a themed movie night with a political genre favorite or watch all the classic Schoolhouse Rock videos. Whatever you do, making this moment special can have a lasting impact on the country’s newest voting age citizen.
All Elected Officials You Can Vote For
When we thinking of voting, we typically just think about the general election for president and maybe congress. Spend some time with your teen talking about all the different places they can exercise their right to vote besides just the highest seats.
- Learn who all your current elected officials are—local, state, and federal. See if they have mailing lists you can be on or social media feeds to follow to stay connected with what they’re doing for you. Research what their policy stances are and what work they’ve accomplished while in office.
- Learn which upcoming state and local elections you can vote in. Sometimes ballots can have referendums on them, not just people. BallotReady is a great resource to know what’s coming in your next election.
Things to Keep in Mind
- As with most things with kids, big topics are never one-and-done conversations. Be prepared to have continual (and sometimes repeated) conversations with your kid about politics in our country and how they fit in with our every day lives.
- Don’t be afraid to seek outside resources. From news for kids, to informational videos, to books—there are a lot of different ways to learn about and understand politics at any age.
The Bottom Line
Civic engagement is cultural. Discuss with your partner what kind of family culture you want to have surrounding politics. Over time, that family culture will help shape your kid’s relationship with their civil rights and responsibilities.