Children are acutely aware of news about mid-term and presidential elections. They hear the television coverage, campaign ads, and they listen to folks on the radio talking about the elections. They see news media images, bumper stickers, and t-shirts. They can feel the excitement of supporting a candidate, the apathy, the frustration, and the hate tied to the vitriol. Children cannot vote, but they are forming opinions about the race, the candidates, elections, and how democracy works (or doesn’t).
If you are not already talking with your child about living in a democracy and the accompanying responsibilities, the next couple of months may be an opportune time to start. Early civic engagement sets up self-perpetuating habits. With so few citizens voting these days, the revolution I would like to see is that children grow to be informed and regular participants in elections.
What is voting?
Who can vote?
Why can’t kids vote?
Why should people vote?
How do I choose who to vote for?
Why are there a donkey and an elephant as symbols?
Choices. To vote is to affirm the idea that we are a participatory democracy. Voting is essentially a choice. We make choices all day long and it may be worth helping your child acknowledge some of her choices. Some of those choices will affect the child directly; whereas some of those choices will affect other people or the welfare of a larger group.
A good place to start would be acknowledging the choices your child makes to do or not do something. When spending time with one another, you can assist in identifying decision points by asking: “Was that a choice?” or “Can we choose?” “What are your options?”
Reasons for choosing. Initially, just assist your child in recognizing that a choice or decision is being made. The next level is to dig a little deeper and examine the decision-making process. If you choose to wear pink shoes today, what went into that decision? If you don’t want to pick up your clothes, why? You chose to help me prepare dinner. Why? Describing reasoning is not the same as arguing, but this might be too fine a grained distinction at this point in your child’s development.
Learning to make reasoned choices is a prerequisite to voting.
Ideally, decision-making (including whom to vote for) involves several steps:
Defining the problem,
Listening carefully to others and gathering information,
Weighing alternatives and potential outcomes,
Brainstorming solutions and making a decision, and
Evaluating that decision.
I don’t seriously expect you to work through these steps with your child with each decision, but in hearing her rationale for making a decision, perhaps occasionally you could examine some of these steps. For example, asking:
“What choices did you have?” or
“What else might you have chosen to do?”
“If you had chosen to do something else, what do you think would have happened?”
If having difficulty deciding, you might say, “It’s up to you, but have you considered…?”
Exercising deliberate decision-making means your child has some understanding of these steps.
Parallels with critical inquiry. You may recognize that the steps in decision-making are not unlike the steps in critical inquiry that we are trying in this blog to help you instill as thinking skills. Making a choice of whom to vote for should be a thoughtful process, asking questions, collecting and comparing information, and predicting different outcomes. Coincidently, these are steps frequently practiced in teaching conflict management skills.
Consequences. Choosing has consequences, which is yet another level of consideration. If you choose to stay up past your bedtime, how do you feel the next morning? If you don’t eat your dinner, do you feel hungry later?
Voting has consequences. We hope to vote for people who represent our voice and that those elected officials can solve problems in line with what we think is needed.
(Just a note to bear in mind: Poor choices are good learning opportunities for suggesting that next time your child generate more options and weigh the outcomes. That is, making a poor choice does not mean that you are bad, it means that you were impulsive, inconsiderate of another person’s perspective, or failed to think of alternatives.)
Family voting. Do you discuss things and make decisions or establish rules as a family? Does your family vote as a group on TV shows or movies to watch, about weekend or holiday outings, snacks or chores? There is loads of evidence from studies of family relationships that voting can be a meaningful and positive experience for children. It encourages clearly communicating positions; bearing in mind one’s own desires while learning to weigh the good of the group. Voting has consequences and when a family votes, the consequences, if negative or positive, are borne by the group. Voting as a group means accepting the consequences of the group’s decision, accepting that the majority wins.
Take your child along to a voting precinct and into a voting booth to watch the process first hand (assuming the lines are not too long). Alternatively, if completing mail-in ballots, a child can help. Make voting a tangible experience.
Compare and Contrast
I believe an interesting exercise with children is to explore with them what services a government provides. Who manages or pays for: our roads, schools, police, first responders, prisons, libraries, trash pick up, and parks and recreation? Can your child generate some of what governments do? In your community, a portion of services may be privately managed, but most of us are dependent on our local and regional governments to oversee the performance of these jobs. Other parts of government monitor the quality of our air and water, see that justice is delivered and elections are run fairly. Diplomacy, defense, and security are also jobs assumed by governmental bodies. How aware is your child of the variety of ways that government impacts his or her life? Build on that awareness and then you can pivot to the fact that voting is selecting the leaders who will determine if and how these services are run.
Does your child have a particular interest that is in the news? Is she interested in protecting animals, building baseball stadiums, increasing money for schools, or worried about pollution? Perhaps you can assist him in collecting information about how people are arguing for or against a bill. Comparing those arguments is useful for forming one’s own opinions. Keep the number of pro and con positions manageable depending on your child’s age.
Invite your child to consider who or what influences her decisions. Is there a topic you have been discussing and you have observed that your child has a strong opinion about? Ask where those opinions are coming from, or who or what has had an impact on deciding. Compare the influence of siblings, friends, adults at her school, or the media. Perhaps a coach or church member has had an influence. What is your input or impact? Is it something you said? Can your child recognize these various sources or which are more or less important?
Viewing different sources of opinions is helpful as is collecting information from multiple informants. Can your child recognize, however, tendencies to put more faith in the information provided by some people or more quickly dismiss others as less reliable?
Usually when voting a majority wins. Discuss the concept of a majority. Typically, it is greater than 50% (or greater than half). If you have three, four or five members of your family voting, what would be a majority?
Older children eventually learn that the “majority wins.” They may not like it, but they can accept that fact. Younger children may have more difficulty with this notion, but repeated exposure at home and at school will help. (If a child is consistently in a minority and “losing,” this could be demoralizing. If you recognize that this is happening, try consensus building or efforts to negotiate and compromise. In these instances, the child’s opinions or wishes may be incorporated into a rule or plan, whereas if voting, their ideas can be left out completely).
In the United States, we cannot legally vote until we turn 18 years of age. Calculate how many years your child has to wait to vote. Before 1971 your child would have had to wait until she was 21 to vote.
Generally, it is thought that children are too immature to make the decisions associated with selecting a leader, but I have met plenty who are better informed and more tolerant of other’s opinions than many adults. How about changing voting age to 16, or 14, or younger? What does your child think?
What about proxy voting? Children are citizens, shouldn’t their voices count? Can parents vote for them, or can their votes count less (say ½ of an adult’s vote)?
Is your child ready to discuss polling data? If you think there is interest, perhaps you can share that information. Not everyone understands the concept of margin of error, but otherwise, these data are relatively straightforward (although not necessarily predictive). Potential voters are asked who they will cast their ballots for, and the percentages are compared! Can you find ways to describe percentages? How about cutting a sandwich (100%) in half (two 50%’s), and cutting those two halves again, with the remaining portions of the sandwich representing 25% each. Now look at some polling data and cut the sandwich accordingly. Which portion represents which candidate?
Ask friends and family who they are voting for and create graphs representing those tallies. If you think that discussion may arouse too much emotion (I am not a fan of exposing children to angry voters), decide with your child what he thinks are 3 or 4 important issues and ask those same people which they think is the most important one in an upcoming election. You can even narrow the question to one issue, and ask friends and families if they would vote “yes” or “no” to support it.
I think it would be helpful if that child asked people to talk about what they do AND what they don’t like about a candidate or a position. Hopefully those same friends and family can demonstrate that their decisions are reasoned, modeling decision-making steps.
Can your child collect data on what life would be like if we did not get to vote for our leaders? Ask different people what would happen if we all failed to vote. Who would be in charge and how might that affect the way we live?
Ask family members and friends how they would feel if their right to vote was obstructed or even taken away. Compile these statements. Is there a trend or pattern?
After looking at polling data, invite your child to predict the outcome of an election. Was he correct? How close or far off was the polling data in making a prediction?
Voting is important, but so is working on issues in one’s school or community. We can encourage civic engagement in both election and non-election years.
Civic education in schools is not as straightforward as it might seem. The topics are touchy and teachers and others have to skirt around partisan-sounding positions. Children are in tune with their parents’ beliefs and can often reveal that a topic a parent has a strong opinion about was discussed in the classroom. Those parents can become incensed and angry with teachers or school administrators.
So, you may not be able to count on schools to thoroughly cover civics. Your home may be a better place to initiate these discussions, but make sure they are deliberative. That is, explicate BOTH sides of an issue or compare candidates fairly so children learn to think critically. Frankly, this can be difficult to do as a good deal of the media increasingly feeds us negative and unbalanced information. Unfortunately, this is not new as elections in this country have historically been nasty and controversial.
Visit a library and find books on the constitution, our found fathers, or elections.
Here are some more recommendations for working with children on the topic of voting.