Teach Your Kids About Voting

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As the Presidential election is all over the news right now, it’s a great time to teach kids how our electoral process works. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to help our children develop a love of – and an appreciation for – our country. Here are some tips for involving kids in the voting process, for making U.S. history come alive, for remembering our veterans and more.

°        Teach kids how elections work. Even children as young as early-elementary-school age can get involved in learning about elections if you keep things simple and fun. During the presidential election in 2000, when our son, Matt, was almost five, we explained – in VERY basic terms – how the electoral college worked. (Confession: We had to research that a bit ourselves, first!) We printed colorful electoral-college maps from the Internet, as election day neared, to show which states were leaning toward which candidates. We watched the presidential debates together and huddled around the television on election night. It was a hoot to see Matt – who for weeks had been paying particular attention to NBC’s Tim Russert (who will be greatly missed) and his ever-present white board – getting excited and saying “It all comes down to Ohio, Ohio, Ohio!”

°        Take the kids to the polls. At our local polling place, they offer a children’s practice ballot, which is a big hit with kids from preschool on up. Matt has happily “voted” for Abraham Lincoln for president on more than one occasion. “The most important thing you can do to help generate your kids’ interest in the public process is to take them to vote with you,” says mother-of-three Marika Bergsund. “They have all been voting with us since they were toddlers. We always include them in reviewing the voting materials and prepping our sample ballot. And we let them help in the voting booth,” she adds. “We treat voting like a very special privilege that should be valued – which it is!”

°        Follow local politics. Kids need to know that their mayor, city council and school board make decisions that affect their lives. For a community report in third grade, we took Matt to visit the local city-council chambers. He got to see the mayor’s office (and pick up the gavel – a big treat), sit where the council members sit during meetings and learn how decisions are made. This is also a good place to teach kids that, when they start voting, their vote will matter. “We follow all local elections to help our daughter understand the importance of every single vote,” says Joyce Fahey. After a city-council election in a nearby town was won by less than 10 votes, “we talked about the fact that the losing candidate undoubtedly had 10 friends who were ‘just too busy’ to take the time to vote,” she adds.

°        Sing America’s songs. A University of Florida study found that we are losing a large part of our national identity because we so seldom sing traditional American songs. Researchers note that many of our national songs are being ignored in favor of pop hits, and that today’s children are more likely to know the lyrics to the latest Taylor Swift song than to patriotic, folk and traditional children’s songs. “Although Americans say that the singing of folk songs and songs of our heritage is important, we are teaching very few of them in the schools,” says music professor Russell Robinson, who supervised the study. That’s why it’s more important than ever to enjoy these songs at home. CDs of classic American songs are available at your local library. Visit www.scoutsongs.com for lyrics to “America the Beautiful,” “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “This Land is Your Land” and many other traditional American songs.

°        Visit America’s historic sites. “Washington D.C. is ‘our city,’ and we need to make sure our kids get there when they are at the right age to absorb the enormity of the greatness of our nation,” says Joy Hall, the mother of two. “I think the war memorials and the Smithsonian, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Memorial and the Capitol building are all really awe-inspiring to kids.” Before her husband took their son to Washington D.C., “we had our son do some reading so he was better prepared to absorb what he saw and so he could feel proud of what he knew,” she says. Michelle Erickson says her sons, learned a great deal during a family trip to Boston. “We saw the Freedom Trail, Paul Revere’s house and a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party,” she says. Erickson agrees that it’s helpful to read historical children’s books ahead of time so that the kids have a greater appreciation for what they’re seeing. “And it’s important, on these visits, to talk about the sacrifices made by the first settlers to America,” she says.

°        Talk with a veteran. “My grandson’s school presents a patriotic program each year,” says Ellen Herron. Veterans and public- safety officers are invited, along with family and friends. “The students each write a ‘Dear Soldier’ letter, some of which are read during the program,” she adds. Other families report that a visit to a veterans’ hospital, whether as a family or as part of a school, Scouting or church group, was particularly meaningful for their family. Interviewing a veteran is a great way for kids to learn about our country’s history and to show appreciation for those who have sacrificed for our freedom. “Our kids enjoy talking to their grandpa and looking over anything he has that relates to when he was in World War II,” says Hall. She also suggests interviewing veterans to learn about their war-time experiences.

°        Set an example. Kids watch what we do, and our actions tell them what we value, says Hall. “We display a flag, we turn on the T.V. for inaugural events, and we watch State of the Union addresses and presidential funerals,” she adds. “We also write letters to enlisted men and women.” One of the most important things we can give our children is to pass on our own love for America, says Hall. “Nothing can replace the pride and tears they see in your eyes at certain times that are significant to our country.”

Kathy Sena frequently covers parenting issues. Visit her at kathy@kathysena.com

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