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Introducing Teens to Politics

Citizenship made simple


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two teens holding american flagWe live in a time of enormous civic engagement, with the Tea Party on the right, Occupy Wall Street on the left, and a presidential election on the horizon, so it’s the perfect time to talk to your teens about having a voice in the process. Here are some things you should know.

Power in Numbers

There are 44 million eligible young voters, or more than one-fifth of the American electorate, in the Millennial Generation (defined as people born between 1977 and 1997—your children).

But Millennials aren’t just a large cohort; they’re also the most ethnically diverse, well-educated, tech-savvy generation in our history. They face significant economic and social challenges. And, says Elizabeth Matto, an assistant research professor and director of the Youth Political Participation Program at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, this generation (which, by 2015, will comprise one-third of the American electorate) “has an incredible potential for power.”

With that power, though, comes the responsibility to participate in and be knowledgeable about our democracy. It’s up to schools and parents to lay the foundation for that responsibility: schools by teaching American history and civics, offering forums for discussion and debate, and having an active student government; and parents by being politically engaged and modeling appropriate civic behavior.

“You take biology, math, chemistry,” Matto says. “But you’re not all going to be biologists, mathematicians, or chemists. [Similarly] you’re not born with an understanding of what representative 
democracy is and your role is as a citizen. How you can influence the workings of government has to be taught.”

Thus Matto offers the following five suggestions to parents for becoming what she calls an “agent of political socialization” for your children.

In New Jersey, a teen can register to vote prior to her 18th birthday if she will turn 18 by Election Day, which is November 6, 2012.

Encourage your child to register as soon as she’s eligible. Have her visit Rock the Vote, a site whose mission is “to engage and build political power for young people in our country.” She can register to vote on the site and find ways to become more politically engaged. The site also links to Electionland, where your teen can click on New Jersey to learn about the issues in local elections and ask questions.
  1. Be a good citizen yourself. Model good citizenship. Pay attention to politics and follow what’s going on. That shows how it has an effect on your day-to-day life.
  2. Consume news and let your kids see you consume news—whether it’s a newspaper, magazine, radio, the nightly news on TV, or a news source on the Internet. The extent to which you do this is a big predictor of your kids’ future political engagement. Pay attention to high-profile, well-known news sources across the political spectrum for information.
  3. Discuss politics. Engage in discussions and debates in a civil way.
  4. Take your kids with you to vote.
  5. Play an active role in your community. Attend board of education or city council meetings. You deserve to be there and you should care about what happens there. Express your opinions in an honest and civil way.

Power in Information

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign demonstrated the influence of social media in an election. To help your teen become politically educated this year, encourage him to subscribe to a variety of electronic news sources. If she’s on Facebook, suggest she “like” newsfeed sites such as those of The New York Times or Wall Street Journal, and to “like” political candidates’ Facebook pages. Doing so will provide her with a steady stream of updates and information about how to become involved in campaigns or local events.

If your teen wants to take a more active role, he can volunteer for a campaign. “In some lucky instances they even pay [students] to canvass or hand out leaflets,” Matto says.

Your child can show his support for a candidate by wearing a button or t-shirt or (if it’s okay with you) putting up a lawn sign. Watching the debates is a wonderful family activity and should spark lively conversation.

Finally, freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our political system. So even if you agree to disagree with your teen on some—or all—of the issues, keep talking about them.

Kids Are Involved

“Youth civic engagement is critical to our democracy,” says CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. And CIRCLE’s research shows today’s youths are involved:

  • 72 percent of young Americans say they follow what’s going on in government and public affairs at least some of the time.
  • 67 percent have confronted someone who said something that they considered offensive, such as a racist or other prejudiced comment.
  • 36 percent have volunteered within the last year.
  • 35 percent participated in political discussions by trying to persuade other people about elections.
  • 30 percent have boycotted a product because of the conditions under which it was made or the values of the company that made it. Roughly the same proportion has “buycotted” a product, or bought it because they approved of the company’s values.

-- Source: Lopez, Mark Hugo, et. al.; 2006 Civic and Political Health of the Nation Report; CIRCLE, civicyouth.org.

Carol Lippert Gray is the editor of Raising Teens.

Does your teen show interest in politics? Do you encourage her to find her political voice?

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