Engaging children and youth in election season

There’s a way for youth to learn about the democratic process at all stages of their development.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Theresa Thompson

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Theresa Thompson

There’s no doubt Michigan is leading up to an important mid-term election; mailboxes are filling with candidate literature and the airwaves are littered with mud-slinging political messages. If these are the only ways children are exposed to elections and the democratic process, it can cause youth to distance themselves from politics and its influence on our daily lives. Michigan State University Extension recommends trying the tips below to engage children of all ages in this important right and set the framework for them to become educated voters when they turn 18.

Children ages 5-8 can learn about the political process by accompanying their parent to vote. Familiarizing children with the polling location, paperwork and polling booths will make the process less intimidating when they have to go to the polls themselves. Grab them a sticker that they can show their friends to say, “I voted.” In a family or club settings, you can set up a ballot and have the kids vote on something such as what movie to watch or what kind of cookies to bake.

Children ages 9-12 can begin learning about the political process by getting involved in a group. Youth involved in 4-H clubs are introduced to basic principles of voting and democratic decision-making by making decisions with their 4-H club using parliamentary procedure. Youth ages 9-12 are at a perfect age to begin practicing making motions and seconding them. Refer to a previous article by MSU Extenson on parliamentary procedure basics for more information. Talk to young people about what qualities they look for in a leader. Honesty, fairness, good public speaking, ability to listen, caring for others, financial skills and friendliness are some examples. Do they think it would be easy to find someone with all those qualities? Are some qualities more important than others?

Youth ages 13-15 can be more actively engaged in the political process by attending a public meeting. A quick visit to a local city, township, county or school board’s website will allow them to review upcoming meetings and agendas. The Open Meetings Act requires that meetings be open to the public and individuals have an opportunity to provide comment.. And, if youth are passionate about a topic being discussed, they can speak during public comment. This experience makes public decisions real for youth and helps them realize they have a voice. Youth involved in 4-H clubs might now take on a leadership role as a club officer and seeing parliamentary procedure in action will help cement the use for this skill in the real world. After the meeting, discuss it with the young person. Did the person running the meeting do a good job? How would you have handled things differently? Did the officials appear to know what they were voting on? Why do you think they were elected?

High school youth ages 15-19 have many opportunitites to begin deveolping their own opinions about policy and political candidates. Out of school programs geared for high school aged youth can help youth form opinions about policy while moving mock legislation through the political process. The MSU Extension  4-H Capitol Experience provides an opportunity for youth to observe and simulate Michigan governmental processes through a 3-day experiential learning opportunity at Michigan’s capitol. For more information on this, visit the 4-H Capitol Experience webpage.

Additionally, high school aged youth can volunteer at polling places or with political campaigns. Volunteers are always needed to stuff envelopes, check in voters and answer general questions. These tasks may seem menial, but involving youth in the processes can share a different perspective and spark their interests in civic engagement at a young age. The state or local Democratic, Republican or other parties can connect you to local resources where you can help out.

Don’t let your child’s only exposure to the democratic process be related to campaign advertisements and government or social studies classes in school. Provide them with real life experiences and lead by example. Remember that today’s youth are tomorrow’s decision-makers.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Theresa Thompson

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