First and most importantly, Happy Election Day! Please, please, please refer to Fair Play’s post from Sunday about creating good voting habits in childhood. Today’s the day to put those pointers into action. I want to use this post to discuss inspiring civic participation more generally. It has taken a lifetime of varied experiences to understand my role in our democracy and I’m going to share some of those here. In particular we’re going to talk about engaging with representatives — both voicing opinions and volunteering for campaigns.
While it is absolutely critical to teach good voting habits from a young age, it is also true that your child can’t cast a legally recognized ballot until the age of 18. But, there are all sorts of ways that younger constituents can participate and be heard (ways in which you too, dear voting adults, can extend your influence!). Much of those involve engaging with your elected or desired-to-be-elected representatives. In fact, for children, this can be more meaningful than voting because talking about an issue with a real person is way more tangible than filling in an oval for someone they’ve never met who only represents a bunch of ideas. There are two ways both younger and older children can engage with representatives at all levels: calling/writing to them about important issues, and volunteering for campaigns.
My very first experience having my own voice count in government was in the seventh grade. My American history class was learning about the electoral process and we were told to contact a representative of choice about a timely issue. I decided to call my senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, to voice my opposition to John Ashcroft’s nomination to be Attorney General (my parents are lawyers, what can I say). I called, and I was assured my opinion would be noted. But the exciting part? About a week later, both of my senators wrote me back! They explained how they voted, they explained their frustration in his appointment, and they encouraged me to be in touch again about future concerns. I could not have felt more heard that day. I was a freshly-minted 13 years old, five years away from casting my first real vote, but my opinion mattered. Officially.
There are representatives at all levels. And, there are issues of all shapes and sizes. Somewhere out there is an issue your child cares about, with a meaningful impact on their life. There is also someone responsible for decisions about that issue, and a means of contacting that person. Maybe your child is concerned about animals or the environment, and wants to call a senator. Maybe your child is concerned about the lack of crosswalks in your neighborhood. They can write the city planner or town council. The great thing about local issues is that your child really might meet or talk to the representative who can make the change — and that is an empowering conversation. If your child is as lucky as this little girl, they might even get a letter back from the president!
While younger and older children alike can and should maintain a dialogue with their representatives about important issues, I also want to touch on another form of democratic participation especially for teens: volunteering for a campaign. In a high school civics course, we were required to volunteer one semester with a campaign of our choosing. While my friends chose the presidential election and the hotly contested gubernatorial race, I chose one of extremely few volunteers for a county superior court candidate. I chose this race because I knew how little voters generally know about the candidates yet how deeply impactful judicial races are. I was often the only person who talked to a voter about that race. Can you imagine any more meaningful exercise in democracy for a sixteen-year-old than being the only person on the face of the planet to tell a voter about a race? I certainly can’t.
Working on that superior court race inspired quite a bit of volunteer work for other political campaigns, large and small, local and national. It remains the single most influential democratic experience of my life. I don’t promise life-changing revelations about one’s role in the universe. But, especially at a time in teenage development when kids are angsting for a way to feel powerful and agentic, participating in something as “adult” as the democratic process can be deeply empowering. And that’s just it — it’s empowering because teenagers can indeed be participants in the democratic process. Voting is for 18+, but democracy is for everyone.
So, the next time your child expresses a frustration about an issue in this world, be it extremely local, national, or international, connect them with a representative they can talk to. Suggest to your teen they volunteer for a campaign. After all, it won’t be long now until the next election cycle is upon us! Primary elections are critical, particularly for small and/or local campaigns, where money is tight especially so early in the process and footwork makes all the difference. That is an especially meaningful time for a teen to be involved.
Once again, Happy Election Day! I’m sure you don’t need reminding to GO VOTE! You can find all sorts of last minute information on Google’s voting page.
This was the second in a two part series about civic participation. The first part was about teaching good voting habits from a young age. Want to see something else on this topic? Leave a comment!