Voting as adults is one thing, but raising children who vote is another. For civic-minded parents who want to ensure their children grow up motivated to exercise their right to vote, talking about voting and teaching them the ins and outs will likely come naturally through the years. But even if you’ve never voted at all or your voting record has been sporadic, it’s never too late to start a new civics chapter and make an impact on your child’s likelihood of voting when they’re ready.
Besides the chance to participate in our democracy and cast a ballot for the candidates and issues they care about, voting has a slew of other benefits for children, too. One recent study found that adolescents and young adults who vote, volunteer, or otherwise engage in civics and activism on a variety of levels are more likely to stay in school longer and earn a higher income than their peers in the long run. Children who grow up engaged with their community are also less likely to experiment with drugs and violence, show greater leadership abilities, experience mental health benefits, develop better problem-solving and decision-making skills, and generally enjoy better life outcomes.
So what can parents do to help guide their promising young voters? We’ve got a few ideas, whether your kiddo is a tot, a teen, or somewhere in between.
Start early and be a great role model.
Research shows that when it comes to voting, parental example is the most important determinant of whether a child will grow up to also be a voter. Talk to your kids about candidates on the ballot, what you’re voting for and why it’s important. Depending on their age, introduce them to some of the issues at stake in the current election, so they realize that there is a lot more than just presidential candidates on the ballot.
Take your children with you when you vote.
Toddlers and preschoolers, especially, love getting the ubiquitous “I voted” sticker, a small but important symbol that you’ve exercised your right as a citizen to vote. If you’re headed to the polls to vote in person, be aware that kids are allowed to come with you in every state (though some states have restrictions on the ages or number of kids you can bring, so it’s a good idea to call your state’s election office to check before you go).
If it’s not safe to take them inside this year because of COVID-19 risks, you can show them the outside of the polling place and read the signs together. And if you’re voting by mail, show your children what’s on your ballot and take them with you to the mailbox to cast your vote. It may seem like children are too young to grasp what’s going on, but these experiences create the foundation for a civic-minded life later.
Try voting for things inside your own home.
The more they see democracy in action, even if it’s a family vote regarding what to have for dinner, the more familiar they’ll be with the process—and the more excited they’ll be to cast their ballot, whatever it’s for! If you’re at the store choosing a new backpack, offer your kiddo two to three choices and ask them to “vote” for their favorite. Anytime you offer your kiddo choices, you’re basically inviting them to cast a vote, so try making it a habit to vote for things and before you know it the word and act will become so familiar, it’ll be a given that voting is just what you do.
Give kids chores and frame it as a contribution to the greater good.
Treat your home like a country of its own and use chores as a way for each family member to contribute to making theirs run more smoothly. You can take that spirit a step further by organizing a local neighborhood park cleanup or a food drive, just be sure to explain how it all connects to helping the community, in the same way that voting helps the entire community — in that case, the community of Americans. It’s a great way for kids to realize that even the tiniest actions matter.
Make civics fun.
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor launched iCivics, a website featuring free games and resources for children to explore how you win the White House, ratify the Constitution, and more. Its Impact Points program even allows kids to earn points that can be converted into charitable donations!
Introduce them to kid-friendly news outlets and talk about why facts matter.
PBS NewsHour Extra, Scholastic News and Smithsonian Tween Tribune are great resources to get them started, but it’s also key to discuss the importance of using reliable sources to avoid the spread of misinformation. You can also watch political ads together and talk about whether the claims are rooted in fact or not (Snopes is a great nonpartisan resource that allows anyone to fact-check claims).
Discuss current events.
Research shows that families that discuss current events regularly tend to raise children who grow up to be civically engaged voters. In fact, one study found that talking about politics at home increases the probability that your child will vote when they reach the right age. Disagreements are part of the discourse, so don’t shy away when someone in the family has a difference of opinion from the rest. Instead, discuss—and celebrate—those differences, but try to find common ground, too. Children need to see that opinions can differ, but respect for each other’s opinion should always remain constant. It’s a great opportunity to teach kids to disagree politely.
Take children to peaceful marches, gatherings, and local meetings—or watch them virtually.
Kids of middle- and high-school age are old enough to not just see, but also understand, civics in action, so anytime there’s a community gathering about an issue that’s important to your family, take them with you. This may include school board and city council meetings, where they’ll be able to see public discourse in action on a local scale, which most likely affects them more directly than some of the national debates they may see on TV. The more they get to hear from people with opposing viewpoints, the less likely they’ll be to form hasty opinions about people just because they don’t agree with them, so the benefits of these experiences extend far beyond the voting booth.
Help older kids get ready to vote.
If your child is a senior in high school or otherwise able to vote this year or next, help them with their voter registration process. Keep in mind that those who vote in the first three elections they’re eligible for are more likely to become lifelong voters, so getting them started right away is key.
If you haven’t always voted, it’s important to be honest with your kids, especially if they’re old enough to understand the significance of it. The important thing is that you’re voting now, so be transparent about your past and make a renewed commitment to start engaging more now. As they say, there’s no time like the present to do the right thing!