Raise a Good Citizen: Teaching Civic Values

Don't expect your child to truly learn how democracy works at school. It's your job to make politics personal.
Girl doing pledge

America's birthday is this month, so here's a quick question for you: What year was the U.S. Constitution written -- 1776, 1787, or 1792? Not so sure, huh? The bad news is that with what's happening in U.S. classrooms, your kid is even less likely to know the answer. (It's 1787.) The National Assessment of Educational Progress recently released The Nation's Report Card, and the civics marks aren't pretty: Only 22 percent of 8th-graders and 27 percent of 4th-graders were "proficient" in the subject.

Given that so many young people are ill-informed about how our government works, it's not surprising that they're largely unengaged in politics. In the 2008 presidential election, despite the excitement surrounding Barack Obama's historic candidacy, only 49 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds showed up at the polls, compared with 67 percent of voters ages 45 to 74. Maybe that's because they're out of touch with current events: Up to 60 percent of teens pay little or no attention to daily news coverage, according to a report from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, a research center at Harvard University.

All these numbers add up to an alarming national problem of civic disengagement, and our educational system is partly to blame. Until the 1960s, civics -- the study of how government works and the rights and duties of Americans -- was a yearlong class in most schools. If it's taught at all today, it's far more likely to be folded into a single-semester high-school course in social studies.

"Civics has been on the decline for a very long time in schools," says Margaret Branson, associate director of the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit charged with getting kids engaged in democracy. "And in recent years, the No Child Left Behind Act has forced schools to emphasize reading and mathematics at the expense of subjects like civics and government."

This de-emphasis on the importance of citizenship could be costly in the long run. As adults, our kids are likely to face unprecedented challenges, from exploding health-care costs to global warming. Whether they're able to come up with workable solutions will depend, to a great extent, on their willingness to be informed and active participants in the political process. "If you don't know how government works, you give up the right to govern yourself," says Rushworth M. Kidder, Ph.D., founder and president of the Institute for Global Ethics, a nonprofit educational and advocacy group.

During the past several years, a growing number of educators and policy makers -- including President Obama and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- have pushed for young people to become more involved in our democracy. Their political education needs to start right now, with a presidential election that will help determine their future (and our nation's) mere months away. Even young kids are ready to learn about their rights and responsibilities.

Be a Model Citizen

The best way to teach kids about our government is to demonstrate your devotion to what the entire system represents. That means voting regularly (it's estimated that half the kids in America live in a household where the parents don't vote), serving on a jury willingly when you're called, obeying laws (even if you don't always agree with them), and working for change -- whether by attending a demonstration or posting a petition on your Facebook page. "Anything that shows you're confident of your own role as a citizen will have a lasting impact on your child," says Branson. Eileen Wolter, of Summit, New Jersey, makes a habit of voicing her opinion to elected officials, and now she's getting her 6-year-old son, Luke, involved. When he noticed a pile of empty beer cans near a playground, she and Luke counted them, took a photo, and sent it to the local paper. "They published it, and he was very proud of himself," Wolter says. "It taught him a big lesson about caring for the community."

Start With the Basics

Make sure your preschoolers begin to learn the vocabulary of democracy. "Talk with them using words like 'laws,' 'meeting,' and 'vote' in the context of family life," suggests Jane Bailey, Ed.D., dean of Post University's School of Education, in Waterbury, Connecticut. Also help your kids develop the ability to talk about an issue that they care about and to listen respectfully to the perspective of people with whom they might disagree.

One of the best places to teach these lessons is at the dinner table. Choose a topic that might affect your kids directly -- an upcoming vote on after-school programs, for instance, or a change in your community's recycling laws -- and then present both sides of the issue ("The schools want to offer more fun activities, but there may not be enough money in the budget for these things right now"). Then ask for their opinion. According to results from The California Survey of Civic Education, discussing politics with their parents was one of the best ways for children to develop a lifelong sense of civic engagement.

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