Raising a Politically Savvy Teen
With the Democratic National Convention scheduled to take place in Charlotte in September 2012 and the debates between potential 2012 presidential candidates heating up, it's a great time to talk to teens about the importance of elections. With an intriguing cast of characters, a "Survivor"-like elimination of all but the most determined participants, and the often unexpected twists and turns that occur, politics can be dramatic enough to satisfy even the most blasé teen.
Current candidates' platforms will not only impact your teens, but their children as well. Campaigners' positions on issues such as the death penalty, global warming, affirmative action and sustainability can provide hours of scintillating dinnertime conversation. Most kids love to analyze, question and debate, and what better forum exists than an election season to do these things.
Where to Begin
Discuss the pros and cons of each candidate. Encourage your kids to see politicians as real people. Reading candidates' biographies, autobiographies or one-on-one interviews as a family is a one good way to get a sense of a candidate with less media influence. Look at a candidate's current actions and words as well as past positions that he or she may have taken to evaluate his or her consistency.
Praise Critical Thinking
Instead of accepting blanket statements about, or criticisms of, candidates, try to take teens to the next level. For example, a candidate's choice of a running mate is a good chance to talk about what he is hoping to accomplish or what types of voters he is trying to attract by choosing that particular person. Play devil's advocate with your kids once in a while to open their minds to different levels of possibility.
Visit political websites, watch debates or convention speeches, read various newspaper and magazine viewpoints and analyze the media together. Be sure to point out that not all media sources provide unbiased, accurate information.
The Nuts and Bolts of the Political Process
Define governmental terms such as Electoral College, primaries, conventions and delegates, and explain why they're important in a democracy. Make sure teens grasp the concept that what happens in state and local elections can affect the family just as much as, and sometimes more than, national elections.
Encourage teens to talk about politics with family, friends and teachers. Teach them to stand for their convictions, and that it is OK for people to disagree. Political discussions with people from various political parties can illustrate how it's possible to like someone as a person while still disagreeing with their choices and/or political views. This offers an excellent analogy to other teen issues where they can be prone to peer pressure, such as sexuality and substance abuse.
Don't forget, however, to make sure that they, as well as the adults with whom they debate, are respectful of one another. If you laugh at or minimize a teen's well-thought-out opinion, you run the risk of alienating him or her from future serious conversations.
For kids who are interested in a more macro approach to politics, take the discussion a step further and look at the special interest groups – such as labor or teachers unions, National Rifle Association, NAACP or American Association of Retired Persons – that are endorsing each candidate, and talk about what implications those endorsements might have if that candidate is elected to public office.
Systemic issues like campaign finance reform can also be of great interest to some kids.
Remind teens that citizens are the ones who elect public officials. We bear the responsibility for who is leading us. Reiterate that democracy is best supported through citizen participation, and that actions can often speak louder than words. The payoff of practicing political savvy is immense because it helps children learn the decision-making skills they need to be contributing members of a democratic society.
Ways to Make a Difference
If you feel committed to a candidate running for office at any level of government, show your kids the different ways to act on that feeling:
• Write a "Letter to the Editor" that your teen can proofread for you, or encourage them to write their own letters.
• Put a political sign in your yard or a bumper sticker on your car.
• Staff a voter registration table or hand out campaign literature.
• Make phone calls on election night or give rides to the polls.
• Take the kids to vote with you.
• Attend an election-night party at the party headquarters.
Sue Henninger is a long-time member of the League of Women Voters. She has three sons, 18, 16 and 14.