When you head to the polls to cast your vote in the elections, take advantage of this opportunity to teach your children about the importance of standing up for what they believe in.
While some parents may assume they need to wait for the presidential elections to present such a “teachable” moment, Deborah Gilboa, MD, a parenting expert, author, and family physician, points out that midterm elections provide just as valuable an opportunity to show your children how to take a stand.
In fact, she points out that smaller elections can be even more significant because mayors, governors, and state officials make decisions that impact residents more directly than those the president makes.
4 Lessons From the Elections
Gilboa offers the following four takeaways that elections offer for middle or high school children:
1. Voting has consequences.
Illustrate this point by challenging your kids to come up with examples of decisions local and state elected officials make that affect your family every day. Ask your children to think about how things might be different if other people were in office, and remind them that in the future, their votes can help make sure that effective people and policies are in place.
2. Voting is a responsibility.
Talk to your children about how to evaluate candidates by their positions, rather than just voting along party lines without knowing which policies you are supporting. Suggest your children look at political ads, and identify the promises that different candidates are making and why. Encourage your kids to define the ideologies that different political parties represent, and discuss how specific candidates fit into them. What are some differences they notice? Remind your children that understanding these distinctions is important when casting their future votes.
3. Voting is a privilege.
Have a conversation about the benefits of living in a democracy where people can legally vote once they turn 18. Ask your children to give their perspective on why this is important. This discussion is an opportunity to talk about how this wasn’t always the case in the United States. It wasn’t until 1869 that African-American men were given the right to vote, and it took until 1920 for women to be allowed to cast their ballots.
In many countries, people aren’t allowed to vote for their leaders. Talk about different governmental systems, such as monarchies or dictatorships, and how leaders come to power in these systems.
4. Voting is a way to effect change.
As a family, look at how voting offers the opportunity to advocate for change when things aren’t the way you want them to be. Ask your children to identify some things they want to change in your family, school, community, state, or country. Use this opportunity to demonstrate that problems often have solutions. “Talk about how the voting process consists of groups of people making decisions on how to generate those solutions,” Gilboa says.
Activities to Teach These Lessons
Contextualizing these important discussions about voting can be a learning experience within itself. Try out some of these activities with your children to teach them about the importance of the elections:
Be a Role Model for Your Children
“Most of us want our kids to grow up to make the world a better place. Parents can teach them 'how' to do this by taking them along to vote on Election Day," says Gilboa. She explains that modeling how you exercise your right to vote is a great way to teach your children that they should take this responsibility seriously in the future. It can also teach them to respect the voting process. For middle and high school students, this is particularly important since their turn to vote is around the corner.
Put It Into Perspective
Emphasize the fact that voting starts in small ways well before children are old enough to legally participate in an election.
“Kids learn about voting through everyday interactions with their families and friends. A group decision, such as which television show to watch, is a great example of democracy at work," explains Gilboa.
Children participate in school elections to vote for student government representatives. Talk about the steps you took in your decision to vote, and how your children can apply these ideas when voting at school.
Model What You Preach
Rodney Jordan, a sixth grade math teacher and author of a new book, “From the Heart of a Teacher”, offers some practical ways parents can teach older children about the voting process right at home — and not just at election time, but throughout the year.
“Generate a menu with three different dinner choices, and let each member of the family vote on one choice,” he says. The winning food item will be prepared for dinner. “This will teach the children that their voice does matter and every vote is critical. If they don't cast a vote, then they really don't have an argument when dinner is cooked,” he explains.
Voting is more than a chance to make a difference in your district, but also in your child’s education. These midterm elections can be a point of departure to teach important lessons about civic and democratic engagement.
Gilboa, Deborah, MD, parenting expert, author, and family physician. Email interview, Nov. 3, 2014.
Jordan, Rodney, sixth grade math teacher in Manassas, Virg. and author of From the Heart of a Teacher. Email interview, Nov 3, 2014.