Six Ways to Teach Your Teen About Civic Engagement

When I tell people that I work in politics for a living, they often respond with a grimace, “I hate politics. How do you deal with those people?” Although I sit squarely in the “political junkie” column, and have built my career in this field, I completely understand this sentiment. Much of politics is negative and feels more about amassing power rather than doing good.

And over the past several decades, we’ve become more and more partisan and divided as a country on the role of government in our lives. I get it, there IS a lot to hate.

family voting
Vote with your kids.

Model being civically active for your kids

But regardless of your own feelings about politics, I would argue that you should still model and teach your kids about the importance of being politically and civically active.

Why should this matter to your kids? Why should we talk to our kids about what happens in Washington, DC or their state capitol or city hall? Simply put, we are all raising the next generation of citizens and voters, and that matters.

Whether it is the economy, gun rights, immigration, health care, the environment, education, or many other issues, our political leaders make decisions about it. Think our federal income tax is convoluted and unfair? That’s Congress. Wish our public schools were funded better? That’s your state legislature. Worried about the crime in your neighborhood? That’s your city council.

Many of our daily issues depend on who we elect

So many issues that affect us daily are decided by those we elect. As parents, we should want our kids to be informed and educated about these issues. However, data show that more and more, our youth are divorcing themselves from the political process. What’s worse, recent national assessments show that only 23% of 8th graders are proficient in civics education.

There are many ways parents can raise informed and active citizens, and it doesn’t have to involve taking a kid to a political rally or protest.

Six ways to raise informed and active citizens

1. Vote and take your kid with you 

Voting is one of our country’s most basic and precious rights. When you model exercising this right, you are showing your kid that their voice matters. And, when your child turns 18, consider dropping a voter registration form in their birthday card.

2. Talk about the issues going on in the world, or even just your hometown

Yes, some issues are hard to talk about, and you may have to adjust your discussion depending on your child’s age. But asking them what they think about issues like feeding hungry people or making sure we have clean water lets them know you value their thoughts. It also helps them look at an issue from different perspectives.

3. Find an issue your kid cares about, encourage them to research it, then have them write to their elected official

If your kid can write, they can learn how to compose a letter. What’s more, elected officials love getting mail from kids, and will usually answer them back. This exercise teaches them strong communication skills.

4. Take your child to see their state capitol. In some large states like mine, this may be a big trip

If it’s too far, take them to see their city hall. If you get a chance, drop by and meet your representatives. After all, they do work for you. The simple act of shaking hands with an elected official gives your child agency in interacting with a person in power.

5. Ask them about what they are studying at school

Most schools require both history and government to graduate. Find out what they think about how our country was formed, and who were the important leaders that made a difference. (If your school or school district doesn’t offer government or civics education, demand that they offer it.) This allows them to break apart an issue, consider the arguments, and form their own opinion.

6. Encourage your kid to join the student council or debate team

There are also activities such as Boys State and Girls State, sponsored by the American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary. All these options show your child first-hand how to participate in a representative democracy and/or argue effectively about issues.

If you are a more politically active parent, find ways your kids can do activities with you. That could mean stuffing envelopes for your favorite candidate or speaking at a school board meeting on ways to improve their school. And yes, if you want to take your kid to a political rally, by all means do so.

As a single mom, I regularly took my kids along to city council meetings and community forums out of necessity. Although they had their heads in an iPad during most of those meetings, they now tell me they actually learned a few things.

Politics can be frustrating but it’s worth getting involved

Although politics can be frustrating, we have a system of government worth preserving, as imperfect as it is. And the only way to ensure that our values as a democracy continue to be upheld in the future is to teach our children how to participate in it.

More Great Reading:

Our Family Voted Together and We Loved the Shared Experience

About Kathy Green

Kathy Green has 30 years experience in advocacy and public policy as a legislative director, public policy advisor, and lobbyist. She holds a B.A. in Government from the University of Texas and resides in Austin. When not fighting for good causes, she parents her three kids: 19, 19, and 16.

Read more posts by Kathy

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