Parenting is a Journey
An Adventure of Discovery Not Only of our Children But of Ourselves as Well
You may already know this, but it bears repeating: In every presidential election since
1964, young voters between the ages of 18 and 24 have consistently voted at lower rates than all other age groups. And worse, while 51 percent of 18-to-24 year-olds voted for a president in 1964, only 38 percent of young people voted in the 2012 presidential election. The staggering decline in engagement by America’s youngest voters over the last 50 years is a serious problem that parents and public schools must step up to address.
The political engagement of our young people should not be a partisan issue. Whether you’re jubilant, devastated, or indifferent that Donald Trump is being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States this month, we should all be in agreement that young people need to be properly educated about their role in America’s great democracy. Parents obviously play the most crucial role in teaching their children about patriotism, democracy, civic engagement, and politics, but public schools must follow closely behind in order for America’s young people to truly understand their critical role as citizens of a democracy.
After the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman approached Benjamin Franklin and asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin’s seven-word reply wasn’t just a warning, it was a request, or perhaps a demand. For this type of government to prosper, Franklin knew that Americans had to seize their right to participate, engage, vote, and speak up. He knew that without an engaged electorate, tyranny could very well bear out.
To help heed Franklin’s council, we all must do a better job teaching our young people about the critical role they will play in our country’s government. It’s absolutely shameful that fewer — much fewer — young people are voting now than 50 years ago. With our improved technology, communication, and education we should have seen the reverse of what’s happened. Thus, we must make some serious changes — both formally and informally — to help ensure that our youth become more civically engaged.
At home, there’s a few things parents can do more of to help the cause: Consume the news, discuss the issues, and model citizenship. Specifically, we need more parents reading the paper, downloading Politico on their phones, volunteering for a local candidate, donating to a national cause, voting early, and talking about the topics they care about. When we do these things as parents, our kids will more often than not follow suit.
At school, we absolutely must embed civics, government, and politics into social studies classes beginning in middle school. This means that students should be reading, writing, and speaking about local, national, and global political issues, current events, and elections years before they can even drive. Obviously, the content covered has to be age appropriate and taught in a neutral way, but as students mature they need to be thinking critically about the issues that they will soon be voting on. At the high school level, schools need to run mock elections, require political volunteering, develop congressional simulations, and hold hot-topic debates and political panels.
Currently in California, most students receive very little governmental or political education during their secondary school years. In fact, many students are seniors in high school before they truly learn about government and politics. This is too little, too late. Civic studies, engagement, and understanding must happen over many years, not a few months prior to turning 18.
As we look back at the 2016 presidential election, there are lots of areas to analyze, debate, and question. But one thing that’s not surprising is that the youth of America once again had very little impact on the outcome. That’s not just sad, it’s dangerous.
But it’s fixable.
Young people are smart enough, savvy enough, and informed enough to be engaged, influential, and impactful. They just need our help. Parents must bring politics into the home. And schools must bring it into the classroom. None of this needs to be partisan, divisive, or negative. In fact, done correctly, parents and educators can inform and engage kids in a way that empowers young people to make informed decisions about who and what to vote for. The right kind of changes in the home and school will lead to an increased level of participation by young people in voting, volunteering, and supporting the vital issues we face today.
There’s been a lot of debate over the years about how to increase voter turnout and improve civic participation. There’s some great ideas out there — eliminating the Electoral College, utilizing automatic voter registration, making Election Day a holiday, nationwide early voting from Saturday to Tuesday, and standardizing federal election guidelines, to name a few — but there is literally nothing that will improve our electorate’s engagement more than engaging the youth of America. The goal to increase civic engagement can’t just be about giving man a fish — it has to be about giving him a fishing rod and teaching him to fish. And then encouraging him, supporting him, and teaching him some more.
With everything going on in our children’s lives, and all the responsibilities we currently have as parents, about the last thing any of us want to do is dive into a discussion with our kids about immigration or abortion. It sounds daunting and depressing, and not all that useful or impactful. But the more that we do in the home to teach our children about government, politics, and the issues of today, the better off they — and our country — will be. And if educators do the same work at school, our children can become a generation who takes Franklin’s words to heart and truly works to keep our republic.
Benjamin Campopiano is a secondary Instructional Coach and a social studies teacher in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. Reach him at http://firstname.lastname@example.org.