Raising civic-minded and engaged youth




Several students at High Mowing School in Wilton are participants in Model UN. They typically role play delegates to the United Nations and simulate UN committees.

Photo by Kendal J. Bush.


Japan said that eight uninhabited islands were theirs. In 1895, they surveyed the land; no one was there, so they planted a flag and the islands were theirs. End of story.

But then China said those islands had been theirs since ancient times, when they served as important fishing grounds. So back off Japan and hand ’em over.

And while we’re at it, the Philippines has a bone to pick about some land to which it feels entitled, thank you very much.

The countries wheedle and cajole, and they negotiate, each willing to give up just enough to get a resolution. Yet, at the end of the day, after about six hours of everybody working on this: “China vetoed all the resolutions,” said Cary A. Hughes, dean of students for High Mowing School in Wilton, “and the students were left thinking, ‘oh, it really does work like that.’”

These talks were a drill, an exercise developed by Hughes and other educators participating in Model UN – an extracurricular activity in which students typically role play delegates to the United Nations and simulate UN committees. These Model UN resolutions, negotiations and sometimes even the outcomes, mirror the real deal.

“We often say to ourselves, ‘why can’t they resolve that?’” Hughes said. “These students [in MUN] get to see the struggles that come up.”

 Model UN, Hughes said, offers students the opportunity to learn about current events and serious issues going on in the world today.

“And in researching those, to learn how different countries view those issues… then have to learn to take a country’s position, even if they don’t personally agree with it,” he said. “So it forces them to step outside of their own view of the world to see how other people in the world see things. And they have to learn how to resolve an issue cooperatively. This isn’t about debate; this isn’t about beating somebody else at an argument. This is about how to resolve problems cooperatively, which is so important.”

Not only is it important, it’s critical. It’s literally the beat of the heart of our democracy. Without an engaged and informed citizenry willing to work cooperatively for the common good, we are sunk.

That being said, it’s hard. It’s hard to raise kids to be civically engaged. For one, parents are busy. There’s a lot to cram into a day. Volunteering in the community or learning about local government doesn’t always make the list, not for them, not for their kids.

Furthermore, parents may have their reasons for keeping their kids away from it: their own disillusionment with the system, the ugliness of politics, the feeling their vote, their voice doesn’t count. But getting kids to care and getting them engaged often means a least some buy-in and encouragement from their parents.

“Kids typically internalize the social and political views of their parents, particularly from an early age,” said Dean Spiliotes, a civic scholar in the School of Arts and Sciences at Southern New Hampshire University. “They live in the same house; they are privy to the conversations. That transmission is very strong and it’s very important.”

 “We all have to practice these things. We aren’t born knowing how to do it,” said Martha Madsen, president at New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education. “We expect [kids] to kind of just accept the rules and either put up or shut up, and then they graduate and all of a sudden they are expected to be active and participating citizens? You know we have to kind of teach them to do that gradually, over time. It doesn’t happen all at once.”

Where to start

“Every voice does matter. In the country we live in, we have the privilege of being able to have a say in what happens in our government.” — Abby McDonough, 16

Start talking to kids early and often about the issues that matter to your family and about ways to make connections and effect change in the community.

“The easiest way to get our kids engaged is to start simple – take them with you when you vote,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. “Taking your child with you to the polls is an easy way to open up a larger conversation – explaining what voting is, how our democracy works, who you’re voting for, what issues you care about, and so forth.

“The significance of participating in our electoral process, especially in New Hampshire with our first-in-the-nation primary, is a good way to broach a conversation with kids about the importance of civic participation.”

Another way, said Madsen, is to help little ones get involved in volunteering.

“Whether it’s the environment or someone in their family has diabetes or cancer or struggles with mental illness or addiction,” she said, “everybody has an issue that they care about …It’s pretty easy to tap into issues that kids care about. They really do have empathy for other children and for animals.”

For example, she said, talk about the natural disasters that occurred in Texas and Florida in September. Together, research what can be done locally to help. Pick one of those things, whether it’s a clothing drive at school or donating money, and do it as a family.

Madsen said, the idea is to get kids to understand that they are part of something larger than themselves — a church, a community, a city — and that they, even though they are little, can do things to help like picking up litter on Earth Day, volunteering with their parents at a food pantry, singing with their class at a senior center, or even writing a letter to a newspaper editor or government official.

“Part of it is really starting with what the children are thinking about or what their interests are or from a family point of view or a community point of view,” Madsen said.

It’s also a good way to get them to understand basic concepts about how government works, said Sen. Shaheen, who knows firsthand the importance of involving kids in the process.

“It’s important that our kids have a stake in their community and understand how different issues affect not only them, but their family, friends and neighbors,” she said. “My children and grandchildren were involved in my campaigns for governor and Senate. By involving them in my campaigns for public office, I was including them in conversations about issues that mattered to our family and those like it across New Hampshire.”

Next Level

As you head toward middle school age, kids are more sophisticated and can handle more complex discussions on issues and politics. But tread lightly.

“I think middle school is a time of idealism if we don’t squelch it through our own cynicism,” Madsen said. “They want to make things better. And that’s a time when they can start to think about: ‘What matters to me? What do I see in the world that should be different? How do I work towards that?’

“That’s also when they can read and test the validity of various different sources and start to participate in town meetings and their school district meetings. They don’t even have to stay for a whole thing; even if they stay for just their presentation and listen to the feedback, it’s valuable.”

It’s those local meetings of the mind and policy where if anyone doubted that their voice mattered, their fears would be allayed.

“It’s a paradox,” Spiliotes said, “because you usually get the lowest turnout in municipal elections.”

Photo by Kendal J. Bush

“I tell my students that if you are concerned about your vote having the biggest impact, vote in your local elections … because you are probably likely to have more say over who’s representing you on your school board than, say, voting for president.”

Madsen echoes that sentiment, saying that when a kid goes to a town meeting or attends a hearing locally or at the state level on an issue, the adults in the room pay attention.

“Adults are on their best behavior and they really do want to know what the kids think,” Madsen said. “I’ve heard multiple instances where kids’ input has made a difference at the local level, the state level and the school level.”

Understanding how to participate is so important, too, she said. Just the exercise of understanding how to write a letter to an editor or write a letter to a representative on issues that are important to them, or participate in a political campaign by attending a meeting or leafleting, is powerful and beneficial, Madsen said.

Higher ed

Once kids are in high school, there are a host of opportunities for them to participate in and learn about government.

In addition to joining in peaceful protests, marching or canvassing for an issue or candidate, high-schoolers also have the opportunity to learn more about the issues the world is facing and how government works through programs like Model UN or Boys and Girls State — a program sponsored by the American Legion that allows select students who apply to go through the process of writing a bill and getting it passed.

These programs are nonpolitical and, according to the Girls State website, “These lessons inculcate in our citizens a love of America, knowledge of their government and the sense of individual obligation to their community state and nation,” the site said.

The Boys and Girls State program follows New Hampshire governmental procedure as closely as possible and teaches students about the two-party system.

The students also learn the duties, responsibilities and powers of various offices, hold party caucuses and have primary and general elections. Boys and Girls State citizens elect town, city, county, and state officials and conduct city, town, and county meetings. As senators and representatives, they introduce, debate and vote on bills.

“[Boys and Girls State] Subjects young adults to what it actually takes to get things done and the responsibilities associated with it,” said Mike Edgar, who runs the New Hampshire Boys State chapter and is a state representative.

“When they know what’s going on, they can help everyone around them. Their own friends, their family, they can let them know in an informed way how things work. That way when they hear people criticizing [their government] the students can give those people an idea of what it actually does take to get things done.”

Older students can also apply for the Senate Page Program, which allows students to be active participants in an actual Senate Session. Student Pages assist the Senate Clerk’s Office, and other staff members, with a variety of duties that contribute to the creation of new laws governing the State of New Hampshire, according to the state’s website.

The New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education is currently working with NH Listens, in association with UNH’s Carsey School, to hold a summit next March that brings together officials from around the state to come up with even more ways to get teens involved in decision-making.

“We want to really talk about how at the high school level we can include students’ voices in school policy. And what the minimum standards would be for each school in the state to try to come to a consensus. We’re working toward scaffolding things so that by the time they get into high school, they do have an authentic voice in their community at that point,” Madsen said.

Every voice matters

There are still some who balk at the idea that any of this, particularly voting, makes a difference. And sure, Spiliotes said, it can be argued that in a presidential election, for example, while a whole bunch of votes can make it a close race, one vote out of 100 million may not make the difference. But one vote at a town meeting, or local election, where there are fewer people voting, can make all the difference.

Abby McDonough, 16, of Wilton puts a fine point on that idea.

“Every voice does matter,” she said. “In the country we live in, we have the privilege of being able to have a say in what happens in our government. Even if you feel like personally your vote doesn’t make a difference, if everyone thought that, nothing would ever change.”

There is more to being involved than just voting, Maggie Daler, 16, of Temple said. Sometimes what you see on the news or in social media or among friends and family is just too important to ignore. Daler participated in the Women’s March on Washington in January.

“It’s important to take action if you see injustice or you see something that isn’t right,” she said. “You shouldn’t just be silent and turn away kind of. Even if you do vote, it doesn’t always work out for you. I don’t think it’s an alternative to voting. I think that you should vote, but I think you can also supplement it with some light protesting.”

Spiliotes adds that while it’s good for parents to talk about and share their views with their children, and is in fact largely how children gain their political worldview for a time, what also must be taught is civility and balance.

“I think it’s fine for parents to be passionate about particular issues and particular viewpoints,” he said. “But if you can, at least introduce the alternative or countervailing argument. Even if you disagree, it’s important to do.

“If you can, find a way to say, ‘This is how this is working and this is why it’s important and here’s what the people on the other side say.’ If you can do that without demonizing them, I think that’s a civic good.”   

Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.

More from our special Democracy Deconstructed series

No news is bad news

How the media plays a key role in maintaining democracy

Welcome to the New Hampshire melting pot

How school districts are integrating new American students into the classroom and encouraging tolerance

Lessons in citizenship

Why civics education is important and a look at how civics is being taught in NH classrooms
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