by Tanveer Badal
Nearly 49 percent of U.S. citizens ages 18 to 24 voiced their opinions on who should be the leader of the free world in the last election. This same age group puts their lives on the line in wars and rescue missions around the world. They apply for financial aid and explore the job market. Some are inspired to protect the free speech rights of controversial musicians or celebrities. They're finding their voice and looking at issues.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people don't vote because they're too busy, they're not interested, or they feel their vote doesn't matter. While you might think this describes how a teen seems to feel about anything, young adults are mobilizing and younger voters are changing the face of politics. Groups spreading awareness about political action are competing for teens' attention in an already jam-packed life.
Political awareness, and especially activism, start at home. Jan Faull, child development and behavior specialist, says parents are a child's first social reference. "Whether the kid says it or not, the parent holds a strong impression for a long, long time."
Parents can get their kids involved in voting long before the kids turn 18. Here are six ways you can help your child become interested.
If you take voting seriously, so will your teen. If you neglect to vote, then she is certainly less likely to see the importance of it herself. According to Faull, your kids are following your actions from as early as preschool. This is the time to start engaging your child's intellect and explaining why you vote, why you're voting for a particular candidate and what issues are important to you.
Just like the rest of us, teens are affected by almost everything that goes on in the White House and Congress. But since that's probably not what their friends are talking about, they may not be aware. As a parent, you can show them how it's relevant. "Give them sound bites of information rather than a long lecture," says Faull. "As you're watching TV, you might say, ‘For heaven's sake, I don't agree with that!', or if you read something in the newspaper or online say, ‘Now here's a person who has a valid opinion.' " Faull adds, however, that you should not expect any affirmation from your teen—but just know that they are indeed listening.
Make it a priority to watch debates, press conferences and speeches with your teen. The more familiar she is with the issues, the more exciting these events will be for her. It's also good for your teen to read about issues, whether online or in your newspaper, if she doesn't already. Point out stories that you know are close to home for her. Eventually she'll start looking at the headlines and perhaps looking for follow-up stories on a regular basis.
Politics may interest young people when presented through MTV's Power of 12 program (powerof12.org), which focuses on where this year's candidates stand on matters important to young voters, as well as information on registering, voting and music icon viewpoints. News and video updates are posted there.
As she gets more involved with the issues and candidates, the next step is to familiarize her with the electoral process. True, this should've already been taught in American History class. But our country's election process is very confusing and a quick refresher course never hurts. Democracy Class, a one-class-period program targeted to high school students, teaches skills needed to navigate the election process and engage as active citizens. Students visiting DemocracyClass.com learn "Voting 101" and how to start a voter registration drive; they'll view videos of athletes and celebrities explaining the issues that resonate with them. The program was launched in 2011 by Rockthevote.com, an organization that has helped young people engage in politics for more than two decades using music, popular culture, new technologies and grassroots organizing.
Being politically active means being engaged in your community, and for kids, this means being involved in activities outside the classroom. School clubs and sports outlets help teens develop leadership skills, social skills and critical thinking skills. If they care enough about their school to hang out after the bell, then there's a good chance they care about education funding. Volunteering at rallies and conventions is another great way to get involved and see the action as it happens. Candidates are always searching for volunteers to collect signatures, register voters and use social media to connect with voters. Your teen will be helping a candidate he strongly believes in and connecting with young people who care about the same things he does.
If your teen is of voting age, then make sure she gets registered to vote. She can do it online or by going to your local post office.
Turning 18 is a major milestone for you and your now adult child. You've done everything from teaching him to ride a bike to helping him with the college entrance essay. Now you want him to be informed. The best you can do is lay the foundation and trust that he'll continue to vote for the rest of his life and make the most informed decisions.
It's tough to make the distinction between exposing your teens to issues and forcing your opinion onto them. The average teen — who now has a mind of her own — doesn't like to be told what to do. "They're young adults," says Faull. "They're going to vote independently and not particularly for the same person as their parents."
Faull says sometimes teenagers will have an opposite opinion just for the sake of being controversial and to challenge their parents' thinking. This is not to say that you shouldn't share your views with them—that's inevitable. But when you do, make sure your teen knows that she has a choice. You want her to develop a mind of her own. Also, you should not be worried that your teen might be making a poor decision just because it's the opposite of your own. Faull says that by the time people reach their late 20s, they tend to identify more strongly with their parents' political ideology.