My first introduction to the world of politics came in first grade when talk on the playground suddenly shifted from debating four-square rules or who could run the fastest to, “Who are your parents voting for – Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan?”
What stuck with me was learning that my parents had any input in choosing who led our nation. As I said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, I pictured our leaders in the White House making laws that governed us. Up until then, I didn’t know who placed those leaders there. What struck me was that my parents wielded that power.
Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, points out that “habits of participation (or nonparticipation) form in youth and are then difficult to change.”
So, as parents, when we drop our votes in the ballot box, we do more than share our voices. We teach our kids that their voices matter and their actions can have an impact. While being involved benefits our communities, research shows that it benefits our kids as well. They develop strong relationships, learn empathy and grow up happier.
Want to engage your child in civic action on their level? Try some of these ideas during this season of giving to safely serve the community and raise young citizens who care.
Bring them to the booth
Visit votetexas.gov to print out a ballot. Talk with your kids about the candidates and propositions you plan to vote for. Who and what does your candidate stand for in comparison to others? In safer times, take your child with you to vote for an up-close view of the process. After you mark your selections, push the button to cast your vote and deposit your ballot in the box, you can both wear your “I voted” or “Yo voté” stickers with pride!
Hold Your Own Election
Decorate a ballot box. Craft ballots. Recruit voters. Make your own stickers and signs. Then count ballots and announce the winner with fanfare!
Depending on the ages and interests of your children, you can cast your votes for the next president of the United States, or younger children may enjoy voting for a weekend activity or a favorite film on movie night.
Discuss, Debate, Explore
Show democracy in action. Take a topic – whether heady ones from the headlines or simple ones such as … peas or carrots? Make a game of debate. Choose a side and present its merits. Then, take the other side to see things from a different point of view. You’ll be developing empathy in your child. Look for common ground and opportunities to cooperate. Talk about how you handle disagreements and come to consensus in your home.
Tour the Town for Places of Power
Once we elect these leaders, where do they go? Hop in the car and find out. Head to the administration building of your child’s school to see where the school board settles matters that affect your child’s daily life – from calendars and cafeteria choices to budgets and bell schedules.
Drive by City Hall where council members tackle issues such as how to house the homeless, where new parks and playgrounds should go, and how to get people safely around their city – by scooter, bike, sidewalk, car, bus, rail and train.
End with a trip to the Governor’s Mansion and to the Texas State Capitol where statewide laws are passed. From home, you can take a private tour of the Governor’s Mansion at txfgm.org/visit, or find online educational activities, videos and games through the Texas Capitol Visitors Center at tspb.texas.gov/atxmd.
Make a Difference
Kids can use their super-sleuth skills to hunt for problems in their neighborhood, then seek solutions. Are leaves piling up in an elderly neighbor’s backyard? Could the nearby creek use a cleanup? Gather the rakes and trash bags! Is there a Little Free Library that could use restocking? You can locate them on the map at littlefreelibrary.org. Or, build your own! Clean out your bookshelves or organize a book drive to share the gift of good books.
Kids of all ages can create campaigns, read-a-thons, bake sales and drives to collect food, toys, clothing, funds or needed supplies to help others. Local organizations like Generation Serve, Austin Allies, the Round Rock Area Serving Center and Community First! Village offer family-friendly ways to volunteer, both in-person and from home. You can find opportunities as well at austintexas.gov/department/
Join the Club
What better way to engage kids in community than with people who hold similar interests? Have a passion for the parks? Lend a hand (or a shovel) on It’s My Park Days with the Austin Parks Foundation. Want to learn leadership and life skills? 4H may be a good fit. Need some Dad time? Join the Austin Dads Group. Are you a teen with talent? Join Extra Credit, the teen volunteer program at the Mexican American Cultural Center.
If you don’t find a group that quite covers it, form your own! Eileen McGinnis wanted to continue her work to create “a habitable planet for the next generation” with the next generation. On an impulse, she created a new Meetup group to seek out like-minded caregivers, and The Parents’ Climate Community was born.
Follow the Leader
Most importantly, our children look to us as role models. They follow our lead. They watch our actions. If they see us lending a hand or sharing our voice with others in need, chances are … they will too.
By Annette Lucksinger, editor, Austin Family magazine.