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How To Talk To Your Kids About Voting

By Amanda Schupak.

Americans aren't great at voting. The U.S. has some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed democratic world, and young people are especially likely to sit out on Election Day. (For scale: Young voters turned out in comparatively large numbers in the 2016 general election and 2018 midterms — to the tune of a little over 40% and 30% participation, respectively.)

"It is often assumed that young people are apathetic or disinterested or turned off by politics," says D. Sunshine Hillygus, a political science professor at Duke University. But that's not the case. In their book, Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes into Civic Action, she and her co-authors found that, in fact, young people are very civic minded. But the daunting election process often stymies their intentions to cast their ballots.

Parents can help motivate their children to become active citizens by making voting, elections, and the concepts of individual and collective action part of everyday conversation, long before their 18th birthday.

"[Voting] can be intimidating," says Ruby Shamir, author of the children's book What's the Big Deal About Elections. "We need to demystify it."

Here's how you can talk to your kids about voting and get them on the path to participatory citizenship.

Get On Their Level

"It is never too early to talk about the importance of participating in democracy," says Hillygus. "The more that is normalized as a process and communicated as a value within the home, the more likely that a young person is going to vote."

Shamir suggests that kids are ready to talk about civic responsibility as soon as they have a concept of community. You can use your community, and their daily experiences in it, to sketch out a picture of the role government plays in so many aspects of their lives, "pointing out the many markers along the way where government and civic life are impacting their universe."

The key, she says, is to get at their eye level. What do they see? What matters to them?

"I do this by talking about things that are relevant to their lives, the things that they know and see: schools, garbage collection, teachers, firefighters, the helpers in our neighborhood that are government employees that they recognize."

If you go to the beach, explain what it means that it's a state park. Ask them who they think is in charge of keeping it clean and making sure there are lifeguards on duty. Get a conversation going at the playground: Who do you think built this playground? Who paid for those jobs? Who's going to fix the broken swing? Do your kids like space? Tell them about NASA.

Voting Is Power

In her book, Shamir stresses that elections are about power.

"Kids are a particularly disempowered population," she says. "They don't get to choose the families that they're in, they don't get to choose the homes that they live in, they don't get to choose, often, what they wear, or their dinner." But what if they could?

She poses a model of voting: Let's say you have a choice in the gym between kickball and tag, and more kids choose kickball. Then kickball it is. "But then I take it to the next level... What if you could choose your coaches, your teachers, your parents? It's a way of showing kids that voting and elections have more power than is almost imaginable. But we do [have that power], and they can be a part of it."

For a long time, that power was not given to all Americans. You can underscore how powerful a vote really is by teaching them about trailblazing suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells who fought to earn women — white women and women of color, respectively — the right to vote. (Your call whether you want to get into the ways voter suppression still keeps so many from exercising their power.)

Talking politics doesn't have to be political. It can be, if you want to go there. Shamir, after nearly a decade working in the Clinton White House and in Hillary Rodham Clinton's New York Senate office, says she talks about politics at home all the time and there is nothing non-partisan about it. But the point she impresses upon her children — who'd rather talk about magic and cats — is that it's important to engage with people who have different points of view, and to "work together to build the society we want."

For those who want to sidestep the nitty gritty, Hillygus offers that we can "separate politics and political debate from civic participation."

"There should never be a problem with teachers and principals and parents emphasizing how important it is for young people to vote, for citizens to vote, no matter who they vote for," she says. "What it takes to be a good citizen is simply to show up."

Ballot Initiatives

Here are a few more ways you can help your kids become the engaged citizens of tomorrow.

Play iCivics

Kids can play online games to learn about voting and civic responsibility from iCivics, a civic education nonprofit started by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Read Marching for Freedom, by Elizabeth Partridge

Learn with your child as you take in inspiring stories and moving photos of children who protested alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in his fight for voting equality.

Vote

The single strongest predictor of whether a young person will vote is if their parents vote, Hillygus says. So, vote. If you vote in person, bring your kid to the polls. (Check your state's rules first — some set age maximums and limit how many kids can come into the booth with you.) Be sure you both get an "I Voted" sticker on the way out.

Get Inspired For Election Day With Our Suffrage Capsule:

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