Teaching Your Children to Engage in Democracy

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you— ask what you can do for your country.
—John F. Kennedy

Knowledge of how to engage in public life is one of the most important rights and responsibilities a parent can bestow upon a child. Here are steps you can take to help ensure that your children grow up knowing when and how to make their voices heard in the public realm.

Tips for . . .

  • parents with children of all ages
    • Be sure you take the time to vote—model for your children the importance of taking part in elections (and other civic processes such as school and town meetings).
    • Take your children to the polls when you vote, or at least be sure they know you voted.
    • Keep up-to-date on public dialogues and decision making in your community. Speak out whenever you can on issues that affect young people.
    • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • Read books with your children about past and current important leaders (such as elected officials or activists). If you don’t know where to find such books, visit a library and ask for assistance.
    • In your children’s presence, discuss community, state, local, national, and global issues with other adults. By doing so, you model for your kids the importance of being engaged in public life.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • Practice “voting” in your family on decisions that affect everyone. If you put an issue to a vote, be sure you are able and willing to follow through with the results.
    • Take your kids to visit public sites in your community such as parks, libraries, schools, courthouses, and offices of public safety. Explain in simple terms how all who live and work in the area invest in and share these resources.
    • Begin now, if you haven’t already, to have conversations with your kids about all kinds of issues—from local to global. Learn how your children think and feel about issues. Explain your views and if, how, and why those views influence the way you vote or the choices you make.
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • Make sure that your son or daughter learns basic civics lessons (whether at home, school, or through a special program or activity designed for this purpose). It’s important that children understand the principles that form the foundation of our democratic institutions: our three branches of government, how a bill becomes a law, and our Bill of Rights.
    • Give your children access to books, movies, or other types of media (including fiction and nonfiction) that focus on politics, civic engagement, and democracy. Talk about the content—what seems realistic and what was interesting or intriguing to them.
    • Encourage your child to participate in debate, mock trial, student council, or other activities that can help her or him develop skills and knowledge related to public dialogue and democracy.
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • Help your older teen learn about registering to vote, registering for selective service, and other privileges and responsibilities that go along with becoming a “legal” adult.
  • If your child will be living away from home after high school graduation, help her or him figure out how to file an absentee ballot.

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