The workings of our democratic government often seem remote from the pressing intensity of daily family life: car pools, helping with homework, settling squabbles and fending off colds. But it is good to remember that democracy depends on active, involved citizens, and that children need to learn the habits of democratic citizenship just as they learn to brush their teeth.
Start them young
The elementary school years are an ideal time to help children learn democratic principles such as cooperation, justice, and the need for rules and laws. At this age, children are passionately interested in justice and are spending more and more time working, playing, and making decisions in groups. Around third grade, children become more aware of themselves as part of a larger community. Current events figure more heavily in the school day, their reading skills improve, and they have access to all kinds of print and electronic media.
Political attitudes begin to be formed in childhood. As parents, our involvement in civic affairs, our interest in the world around us, and the extent to which we participate in democracy through voting or social activism serves as a model for how involved our children may become in society and in government. Whatever our political affiliation, helping our children grow into active, democratic citizens is beneficial to everyone and to the future of this country.
What you can do
The trend toward voter apathy is alarming. Many registered voters do not bother to vote in elections. We can get children in the habit of voting by taking them with us to the polls. Even very young children enjoy pulling the levers. As children get older, we can talk with them about our choices for president, governor, or congress. Not all family decisions are negotiable, but many of them can be. Encourage children to participate in family decision making about movies, playing games, or other family activities. Engaging children in group decision making helps them learn skills essential for a democracy, like cooperation, compromise, negotiation, and consensus building. Encourage children's sense of justice by talking with them about the unfairness they encounter in daily life and sharing our feelings about it. Exploring justice and injustice within our own families helps children learn to value, and advocate for, fairness. Have more than one source of news and information available at home. Exposure to information about the world from a variety of sources, such as newspapers and magazines as well as television, the radio and the Internet, helps children learn to differentiate opinion from fact an important skill in a democratic population. Debate is a critical component of democracy. Encourage dialogue and discussion through dinner table conversations and lively disagreement about current events. Even young children can be encouraged to express their opinions about the world. Respecting our children's point of view, and respectful disagreement, are good ways to help children expand their horizons, learn to defend their own ideas, and remain open to new information and ideas.