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Big election offers big opportunity

An intriguing cast of characters, a Survivor-like elimination of all but the most determined or ruthless participants, frequent unexpected twists and strong passions — elections have drama enough to satisfy even the most blasé kid.

This election season offers parents a tremendous opportunity to teach their children about politics.

 “We’re educating tomorrow’s leaders,” says Ann Rappoport, director of Kids Around Town, an educational project of the  Pennsylvania League of Women Voters. “We’ll be in their hands. The public policies they create will affect everything we do.”

When to begin

“Start young!” urges Jesse Burns, director of communications for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. Elaine Manlove, state election commissioner in Delaware, has made political action part of her family’s fabric. Today her adult children wouldn’t dream of not voting. “It’s what they saw growing up,” she explains. “Like going to church on Sunday; it’s what you did.”

Family activites

Ann Rappoport of the PA League of Women Voters and Delaware election commissioner Elaine Manlove offer these suggestions for parents to team up with kids who feel committed to a candidate running for office at any level of government:

• Write a Letter to the Editor that your kids can proofread for you, or encourage them to write their own letter.

• Make a family donation to a candidate.

• Put a political sign in your yard or a bumper sticker on your car.

• Have kids help with hands-on activities such as literature drops or envelope stuffing

• Facilitate or volunteer for a “Meet the Candidates” night.

• Staff a voter registration table or hand out campaign literature.

• Make phone calls election night or give rides to the polls.

Access websites such as FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, to clarify candidate stands that seems confusing or incorrect.

Take the kids to vote with you. 

• Attend or host a party to watch election night results. Decorate with red, white, and blue and serve a politically themed meal or dessert.

Evaluate the candidates (third party ones too!). Encourage kids to see politicians as real people. Reading candidates’ biographies together is a great way to get a better sense of how their leadership evolved. Research current actions and speeches and compare them to past positions on issues to see if they’re consistent or if there’s a logical explanation for their change of heart. Manlove suggests treating young people like adults in these discussions, asking questions and carefully listening to their responses.

Practice asking effective questions. Teach your children how to analyze and think critically by visiting political websites together, watching debates or speeches as a family, reading newspaper and magazine viewpoints and evaluating media analysis of the candidates, especially the commentators. “Don’t accept candidates at face value,” Rappoport advises. “Presidential candidates are polished speakers and tend to generalize, rely on imagery or present things simplistically.”

Talk about the political process. Define governmental terms such as Electoral College, primaries, conventions, “swing states” and delegates. Explain their role in our democracy. Use campaign issues to discuss what’s working for America and what voters might need to change. Make sure kids understand that what happens in state and local elections can affect their family just as much as a national contest.

Delve into the issues

Talk about politics with family, friends and teachers and encourage your kids to do the same. Kids who see adults respectfully disagreeing will learn to do it themselves.

Interacting with people from different viewpoints shows young people it’s possible to like someone as a person while still differing with their views.

Campaigners’ positions on issues like the death penalty, global warming, affirmative action, and sustainability can provide hours of scintillating dinnertime conversation! Help kids learn to express their opinions intelligently by encouraging them to gather supporting evidence. “You can find the answers to your questions together,” says Rappoport. “Co-learning is often the most effective way to understand an issue.”

Some kids like a big-picture approach to politics. Look at the special interest groups such as unions, business sectors or citizen advocacy groups that are endorsing specific candidates and what implications that could have if their candidate is elected.

Systemic issues like voter registration reform or redistricting can also befascinating to some politically motivated kids.

Think proactively

“Vote!” Manlove reiterates. If you value your right to vote, your kids are more likely to value theirs. Take your child with you when you cast your ballot. Remind your kids that democracy depends upon citizen participation. “If you don’t vote you lose the right to complain,” she asserts. “You’re no longer a part of the process.”

5 tips for young children from the New Jersey League of Women Voters

• Help your kids do a “political art project.” Encourage them to create a colorful poster urging people to vote, to take kids to vote with them or to vote for a candidate their family supports.

• Have your children write a story or a poem about why democracy is important for America and share it with family members and friends.

• Host a neighborhood forum encouraging both kids and adults to air their views on the candidates and their positions.

• Exercise your right to take your children to vote with you on Election Day so they can experience the process from start to finish. Make sure they receive and proudly wear their “I Voted” sticker from the polls workers!

Make voting a social occasion. Carpool to the polls and share a meal or a special treat before or after you vote.

Sue Henninger is a mom of three, longtime member of the League of Women Voters and a freelance writer.

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