NPR’s Planet Money recently ran a story about Madeline Messer, a 12 year old girl who wrote an op ed piece for the Washington Post about how unfair it was that she had to pay extra to play her favorite video game with a female character. She researched more than 50 games and found that very few of them had female characters available as the free starter character. In conducting her research and writing her letter, Madeline actively engaged in the public discourse about gender and equity.
I remember being about the same age and writing to my US Senator about the lack of movies being made for children. I think that year there were no G rated movies. Senator Lugar’s office wrote back to me. I remember thinking at that moment that what I thought mattered.
These early experiences small, like mine, or larger like Madeline’s provide first forays into our civic spaces. There are easy things we can do to help our children find their voice and follow their interests into the public sphere.
- First and foremost eat dinner together and use it as a time to discuss your children’s interests. Where appropriate help them see how their interests fit into a larger community. For instance, a child who loves to skateboard will be interested to know about efforts to create a skate park or curtail skateboarding in a favorite place. Growing up, the dinner table was where I learned about the issues my parents cared about; why my mother helped start a recycling campaign in our city and why my father took a leave from his job to help manage a gubernatorial campaign.
- In age appropriate ways discuss what is going on in your community, state, nation, even the world. Obviously, not every current event is right for young children, and yet we do our children a disservice in completely insulating them from the world around them. With young children, seek out good news, developments in science and technology, events and topics that are happening close to home. Share these with your children. There are a number of age appropriate news sources that can serve as a basis for what you discuss. When children have a question about something they have overheard, ask them what they know. Answer their questions simply and with age appropriate information. Correct misconceptions and share with them what you think. As they grow older, your conversations will deepen.
- Model civic engagement for your children. Our children are always watching us. What we do is as instructive to them as what we say to them. Whether you are involved in protecting your local watershed, helping to choose a new pastor at your church, serving on a board of directors, or preserving a historic building, speak openly with your children about your involvement and why it matters to you.
- Talk about politics and our system of government. While civic engagement is broader than partisan politics, our system of government works best when we are actively involved in the important discussions of the time. Local, state and national election cycles provide us with wonderful opportunities to help our children get beyond the impossible to ignore campaign advertising and understand the underlying issues. The ability to think critically and deeply about campaign topics are important skills to cultivate. Encouraging our children to listen respectfully to the opinions of others while developing their own opinions takes practice. As they get older, encourage them to write to their representatives and their local news sources.
- Take your children with you out into public spaces. Volunteering in local service organizations, participating in groups like Girl Scouts, attending rallies, town hall meetings and other events are all opportunities for us as parents to help our children see themselves as active participants in their communities. The Chester County Community Foundation website is just one of many resources for finding family friendly volunteer opportunities. The spring and fall are full of family friendly events. Every weekend any number of worthy causes sponsors walks, runs, and swims to raise awareness and money for everything from Multiple Sclerosis, to Breast Cancer, to AIDS, to Autism. These events need walkers, runners, AND volunteers. One way to connect with an event is to choose something that touches a friend or family member. Another way is to give your children a few choices and let them pick what you as a family will do together.
It's not enough to vote and pay taxes; democracies need citizens actively engaged in public discourse in all areas. Our children have a stake in a healthy, functioning civil society. Helping children see themselves as agents of change, as actors in their communities encourages their growth into a sense of responsibility for their communities and their neighbors. Giving them opportunities to talk with us and have early civic experiences with us, fosters their understanding of how to be generally informed and how to choose specific areas for their particular involvement.