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Raise a Good Citizen: Teaching Civic Values

Girl doing pledge

Henrik Sorensen/Getty images

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.

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.