Encouraging positive political and civics participation
Teach children civics by getting them involved in the political process. Here’s how.
Kelly Moss, 35, of Salem, was not politically involved as a child growing up in Massachusetts. But after the 2016 Presidential election, Moss said the divisiveness and hate spurred by the election frightened her and prompted her to get involved.
“I wasn’t a fan of either candidate, and I am concerned that year over year, that it’s becoming more polarized,” she said. “It’s not just about voting every four years. It’s knowing the candidates and meeting them and being actively involved in making a decision. You can’t make a decision if you aren’t informed; and you can’t become informed until you get out there and talk to people.”
Because Moss works during the day for a medical device company and spends her evenings caring for her young children, she thought she would have trouble getting to campaign events related to the 2020 presidential primary.
“Then I thought, why can’t I take the kids? There is no reason why I can’t introduce them to the political process early,” she said. In April 2019, Moss started bringing her children to campaign events.
Today, Moss’s three sons — ages 9, 7, and 6 — can name up to five candidates running for President and have seen presidential candidates including former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Mass. Gov. Bill Weld and entrepreneur Andrew Yang speak at various events. The kids don’t have a political stance, but understand what a primary is now, Moss said.
A lifelong independent, Moss ran unsuccessfully for state representative last year in Salem on the Democratic ticket, coming in 10th out of a field of 18, where the top nine candidates won seats.
She said she enjoyed meeting people from both sides of the aisle and tried to run an “anti-partisan” campaign. Her sons got involved by making signs for her and standing outside the polls on Election Day.
There are plenty of age-appropriate ways parents can get their kids involved in the political process, she said, either at the national or local level:
- Take your kids with you to a candidate event. There is a perception that these events aren’t kid-friendly, Moss said, but often when she has attended her children have seen other kids. It’s also great for the candidates to “remember working families exist,” Moss said, adding that most events tend to attract retired people or college students. Smaller events held in coffee shops or smaller venues are a good start. “They are generally not very divisive events,” Moss said.
- Use TV ads and debates to spark productive conversations with your kids at home. If your family can’t attend events, there are plenty of opportunities for them to watch the candidates and learn about the issues. Exposing your older children to different sides of an argument, and then connecting those viewpoints to data or what they are learning in science can get them involved and interested, Moss said. If you can find personal experiences in their lives to connect to the issues, it can engage them more in the process, she said.
- Avoid giving your child ONLY one side (your side) of an argument. Let your older child watch and gain an understanding of the issues. “It’s important for them to see how a debate works, particularly in a time when having an effective conversation is not something they typically learn at school,” Moss said. You can also use social media as a tool and let your kids differentiate facts from opinion by asking them to research facts that back up these opinions they find on the internet. “Ask them to form an opinion on their own. You should never take one source of information but look at different sources and two different sides of any issue. Even if you disagree, it’s important to understand where someone else is coming from,” she said.
- Listen to people who don’t share your political opinions. It’s important for adults and children to consider the viewpoints of others, no matter how strong their political stance may be.
Like Moss, Martha Madsen, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education, encourages parents to spark dinner time conversations about local and state issues with their children. It also provides parents a good opportunity to better understand the concerns their own kids have.
Madsen is a former teacher, school counselor and a certified principal. The mission of New Hampshire Civics is to engage students in civics education through teacher education and school-based programs like New Hampshire’s Kid Governor.
“A lot of times kids notice the things that we don’t notice that are really sources of trouble,” she said.
Last year, one New Hampshire student happened to be upset by the amount of cafeteria food waste in his school. He then created a plan to share unwrapped food at a table for students who were hungry.
“We should encourage kids, let them know they have a voice and that they can speak up to solve a problem,” Madsen said.
Madsen agrees that parents can positively expose their children to the political process. Town meetings can be particularly fruitful opportunities because students can listen to issues that directly affect them and their towns. Because New Hampshire holds first-in-the-nation Primary status, students have the unique advantage of seeing and listening to many presidential candidates who pass through the Granite State.
“Civic learning shouldn’t only happen in school. We encourage kids to join groups outside of school that are working toward something they believe in. It’s a good opportunity to learn cooperation and teamwork skills,” she said.
Overall, parents provide strong examples to their children when it comes to engaging in democracy. One of the best ways parents show kids they are part of the political process is by casting their vote — something children can experience with them at an early age.
“Voting is a habit just like any other habit. They don’t weigh whether or not they will do it — they just do it. If parents vote, then when a child turns 18, he or she will vote. It is important to bring your children to vote with you whenever possible,” Madsen said.