I remember Election Day 1996 because not only did I get a yellow lollypop and my “I voted!” sticker, but my mom brought me into the booth with her and I got to pull the lever that closed the velvet curtain. Behind this curtain, shut off from the busyness of the polling place, I got to see how decisions were made got to see the buttons and the levers and what was written on the labels above the buttons, got to see my mom push the ones she agreed with, and see what it was like to do what the voices on NPR had been reminding us to do all day—vote. On the way home I continued my barrage of six-year-old questions, about what she voted for, why she voted that way, and why this was the first time we had done this, we should do it more often. (At the time, she clarified this by sharing that people can only vote once, but then I moved to Chicago…)
Taking our kids with us when we vote is just one way to begin teaching them about the political process, there are other very important things we need to be doing, or can be doing, to normalize political participation in the next generation. For me, it was helpful that my mom helped me experience a form of political engagement so I could begin asking questions, other kids might ask questions first and find answers through hands-on experience, or prefer to read a book, but however and wherever the voters of 2024 are getting their information on politics, we need to be aware that they are getting it and that they understand politics means more than partisan banter.
The first step to preparing young ones to be active citizens is to talk about it. Share why you vote, work the polls, volunteer in your community, sit on the school board, or however you engage with your community and world. We need to let our kids why we think these things are important.
With regard to elections, even young children can understand the idea of deciding rules and choosing leaders, discussing how this happens can be a good introduction to government and political participation. Normalizing political participation is valuable as well—integrating the ideas into learning through books and games.
When I got older, around age nine or ten, I recall listening to radio broadcasts about political issues, and my mother asking me what I thought about things. These were significant conversations for my ability to develop my own opinion about things, to learn about current issues, and to understand why my mom was motivated around certain topics.
Older children can be engaged in a deeper discussion about political issues that are current or more about why YOU are involved politically. At this age, sometimes we underestimate our kids, though, so it’s important to encourage them to explore their own beliefs and continue building an understanding of why they think it is important to be involved and engaged—be sure to continue sharing about why you participate in political decision making.
Finally, we must take opportunities to teach our kids about respectful and productive dialog. You might watch a debate with kids (age-appropriately of course), discussing the points the candidates make, but also the tone of the encounter—what did they notice about how the candidates were engaging? How did they feel about what they notice? You might even use the Our Faith Our Vote Civility Pledge to begin a discussion with older kids about civil discourse.
How are you talking about the election with your kids? Have you ever discussed why it is important to you to vote and be involved in your community? I encourage you to begin these conversations now, and to begin bringing them behind the metaphorical velvet curtain.