Raise a Good Citizen: Teaching Civic Values

Boost civic pride

Take Your Kids to the Polls

Your young child may not know the candidates' names or grasp the issues, but taking her with you to fill out your ballot or pull the lever will make a big impression. Explain how an election works and whom you're voting for and why (if you're not sure, other than party affiliation, try researching the issues so you can offer her an age-appropriate explanation). Find out if your town participates in the Kids Voting USA network, which allows children in kindergarten through 12th grade to "vote" for the candidate of their choice at a real polling place. Or talk to your child's teacher about holding a class election. You can also take a poll on family matters, such as an activity for the coming weekend or what to name the new pet goldfish.

Exercise Your Freedoms Together

Show your child the meaning of the First Amendment -- which includes clauses that grant American citizens freedom of speech and the right to petition the government -- by enlisting his help in distributing flyers or contacting an elected official. There are no sidewalks in Asher Simon's neighborhood in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which makes it tough for the 6-year-old and his friends to ride their bikes safely. When he told his mom, Jill, that their street needed a road sign to caution cars to slow down, she helped him write a note to the mayor, including a drawing of himself on his bicycle (she added her own letter explaining the backstory in greater detail). A few days later, several officials dropped by their home to say that the town would install speed-limit signs. "When he saw spray paint in the street that showed where the signs would go, he was so excited," says Simon.

Getting kids involved teaches them that they can truly make a difference. "There's a sense that the system is too large and one voice won't matter," notes Chris Caruso, former executive director of Generation On, a nonprofit dedicated to youth service. "But if children get a response -- even if it's just a simple form letter -- they feel like, 'Wow, someone's heard me.'"

Discuss Current Events

Our founding fathers realized that an informed public is essential for a democracy to function properly (Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, "...were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter"). The best way to make sure your kids are in the know about what's going on in the world is to be on top of things yourself. Let them see you checking out news sites and watching the presidential debates on TV, and invite them to join you in a discussion about an issue that concerns you both, such as school class size or playground safety.

If your child reads on her own and uses the Internet to do school research or simply for entertainment, show her how to navigate to kid-friendly news and information sites, suggests Gene Koo, executive director of icivics.org. You can also watch a news program together (such as 60 Minutes), especially when you know it will cover a topic that interests your child, suggests Eitan Schwarz, M.D., author of Kids, Parents & Technology.

Talk to Older Family Members

Hearing your folks chat about the political events that shaped their lives can get your children psyched about democracy in a way that history books can't. "Grandparents represent living history, and they're usually eager to pass on their values and experiences," says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a nonprofit group focused on connecting younger and older people. The next time you get together with your parents or in-laws, encourage them to talk about the first time they voted, which candidate they supported, and whether they ever championed a political cause, such as civil rights or the effort to lower the voting age to 18. Their answers could yield a civics lesson to last a lifetime.

Patriotic Pages

These books will help your children learn how democracy works.

Duck for President by Doreen Cronin
Tired of doing chores, the title character holds an election to replace Farmer Brown.

The Story of America's Birthday by Patricia A. Pingry
Young kids will discover why we celebrate Independence Day and other patriotic holidays.

If I Ran for President by Catherine Stler
The electoral system is demystified in this tale about six kids who aspire to the highest office in the land.

Everyone Counts: A Citizen's Number Book by Elissa Grodin
Your child will get a fun lesson in numbers and in civics. (How many amendments have been passed thus far? 27.)

If Everybody Did by Jo Ann Stover
A great way to introduce kids to the idea of cause and effect. Everything we do affects other people as well.

Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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