Elect to Learn: Raise Your Family’s Civic Awareness


Ever feel you lack some of the simplest basics to help your kids navigate the world of civic engagement and public policy? Here are some starting points and resources to support you as you empower your family with greater citizenship skills.

Exemplary citizenship skills consist of both behaviors and knowledge, according to Kerry Sautner, EdD, vice president of education at the National Constitution Center.

Power source

A core concept of our representative democracy, Sautner emphasizes, is “popular sovereignty” — the notion that our self-governance is rooted in the hands of the people. This powerful right is also a vital responsibility, because if citizens don’t perform their job, others will.

Voting is important, but it isn’t the only way for citizens to assert their voices and make an impact. Prepare for knowledgeable action by attending local government meetings, learning the core rules and processes, reading and listening to evidence-based arguments posing different perspectives, asking questions and, as Dr. Sautner says, “practicing.”

Sautner suggests sometimes it can start with the simple question, “How can I help?”

Walk the neighborhood with your kids, and ask them what needs improvement. You can ask your local librarian or local town administration how to implement that change.

Nation of law

In order to help guard against abuse of power and protect the rights of the people, our system of governance runs under a constitutional framework in which the rule of law is supposed to apply to all. It’s an imperfect system, but this principle has expanded over time to apply to broader segments of our population.

The Law of the Land includes the U.S. Constitution, with its ever-increasing amendments and legal interpretations through the courts.

You can help your children understand some key elements in the Constitution:

•   You’ve heard the term “balance of power.” This refers to the way the Constitution divides power among three branches: the legislature (Congress, comprised of the House of Representatives
      and Senate), the executive (president and cabinet) and judiciary (courts). No single branch has total control and each branch “checks,” or limits, the power of the others. Sometimes this approach slows or stalemates policy, but it also makes it harder for government to abuse power against weaker or minority portions of the citizenry.

•   You also know that there are different levels of government: national (federal), state, county and local (municipal, town, borough, city, township). In general, the national government deals with foreign countries as well as business and transportation across states. Local governments usually deal with things such as street lights, playgrounds and sewage. When it comes to roads, education, courts and taxes, however, there is a lot of overlap and often all four levels of government are involved. If you’re not sure which level to deal with, you can start with your local town administration or librarian and ask.

Established laws

A good place to focus in raising the family’s civic awareness is on what our laws and rules tell us we can do, according to Sautner.

Many rules are spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, in state constitutions and laws. Case law from the court systems has refined and clarified these rules.

Sautner says that scholars agree on much with respect to fundamental rules. For instance, she says, political speech is a highly valued right, provided for in the First Amendment.

Freedom of speech has been protected to the extent that burning the American flag has been allowed as political speech where it has not posed imminent danger to the public. However, falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater would not usually be protected.

Gray areas: Practice civic discourse

Gray areas do exist, and these are being debated and worked forward, says Sautner. Rights and rules are not “absolute,” nor always 100 percent clear. This is when skills of civil, civic dialogue become so important.

To help jumpstart healthy discourse, the National Constitution Center partners with other organizations to provide numerous online resources — including simple lesson plans for parents as well as teachers — and the “Interactive Constitution.” In addition, visitors receive pocket-sized copies of the Constitution and other founding documents.

Respectful exchange of perspectives can promote deeper understanding and constructive compromise when based in the core essentials of our civic framework.

Party! (Or not)

For some people, the political party system in this country provides framework, whereas for others, it’s a hodgepodge of confusion and polarization.

Parties are regulated differently by every state. Think of them as many groups of organizations trying to get their candidates into office. Often the candidates or office-holders themselves shape their parties, at all different levels.

Meanwhile, registered voters who do not register with either major political party increasingly outnumber those affiliated with each major party. However, in many states — including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware — only voters registered with a political party can vote in that party’s primary election.

There are countless non-partisan organizations that focus on issues, and keep “scorecards” of where officials stand on those issues. If you’re less interested in partisanship, but want to be active in issues, you may want to get involved with such organizations.

Be the change

Don’t be daunted by gaps in your civic awareness. It’s never too late to learn more, get involved and make a difference. Many knowledgeable, experienced adults still get butterfly stomachs every time they walk into the polling booth.

Modeling ongoing civic learning as parents is one of the best ways to raise your family’s civic skills.


Ann L. Rappoport, PhD, is a contributing writer to MetroKids.


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