by Meredith Flory
As a parent, it can be moving to watch our children become passionate about a cause, and also frightening or frustrating when we aren’t sure how to answer their questions or guide them towards positive political activities. Recently, at rallies and protests regarding a number of topics: gun violence, environmental issues, racial injustice and women’s rights, teens could be found holding signs, giving speeches, and helping to organize. While there is plenty of precedent for committed young people, this generation’s access to information and social platforms enters new territory. I spoke with local school media specialist and mother Emily Burgan Railey, and Kim Ball, whose daughter is one of the teenage organizers for the local March for Our Lives, regarding ways parents can positively address civics in their home.
Addressing History with Young Children
One activity that Ball and I both share is taking our young children to the voting booth with us. While I’m in the process of helping my kids understand what it means to be an American, Ball is seeing the payoff of teenagers who are invested in understanding and participating in democracy. I know it can be tempting as a parent to want to shield your children from world news, but as Railey and I discussed, there are easy, age-appropriate ways to start introducing political concepts. She introduces government history during story time for children in Pre-k thru 3rd grade, particularly near patriotic holidays or days of remembrance. For many current parents of young children, 9/11 was a defining moment, yet Railey has met resistance when she shares with children how “everyone has a story for what they were doing.” She works to demonstrate to parents how sharing our personal stories of national events can help teach children about topics such as first responders and the military. Railey works with a lot of students whose parents have been stationed or deployed overseas, and these lessons can help them process their military life. She recommends that “parents talk about current events and why we have holidays” to help students understand the world they live in.
Resources for the Summer
Summer holidays provide not only a break, but an opportunity to discuss American history. Tie your family outings into mini lessons on patriotism or civil rights with a good book or trip to a museum. While I’ve mentioned many before, I cannot stress enough how important it is to take advantage of state parks, history museums, and heritage sites where you live, providing a great way to spend a day with your young history buff or little activist to learn about Georgians who made a difference. Railey suggests Fourteen Cows by Georgia author Carmen Agra Deedy, and What Do You Do With An Idea, by Kobi Yamada as powerful political picture books for children. For Fourth of July she suggests School House Rock and Liberty Kids videos on Youtube. I suggest author Susan Campbell Bartoletti for non-fiction stories of activism for older elementary and middle school children. Her book, Kids on Strike, tells the story of children involved in the Labor Movement and is perfect for the upcoming Labor Day holiday.
For teens, Ball pointed out how all of the media in front of us can be used positively by parents, rather than as a source of stress. Her family watches or read news together and shares that, “often, our daughter will come home from school work or baton practice and ask if we’ve heard the latest news story or political headlines, and we always make time to discuss anything she is interested in.” Being a willing ear can encourage your children to be informed and active citizens. Find ways to answer questions with facts and a positive tone – don’t be afraid to seek resources for ones you don’t feel comfortable answering.
Encouraging Your Child’s Activism
When kids feel passionate, they can make a difference both now and as they grow, and you, as a parent, are their most important influencer for using that passion in a positive way. Ball has seen firsthand how “never really” shying away from “controversial issues with our children” has encouraged her daughter to take an active role in working to improve her community. Schools address civics, history, and government, but as Railey points out, “our lowest scores in Georgia are often social studies”, theorizing this is in part because parents do not always talk about these topics in constructive ways at home to build on to what children are learning in their finite classroom time. Railey points out that learning civics and politics at a young age won’t simply help children do well on test, but increases a more knowledgeable voting population. As her student body is made up of military kids who travel a lot, she also points out that it can “help them to understand and respect cultural differences,” making more out of their travels.
Railey lists a variety of activities families can do together, such as volunteering for a local charity, discussing and signing petitions, and letter writing to local representatives. While it can be great to find opportunities to work together, as children age, you may find yourselves on different sides of an issue. Ball suggest working to encourage teens to think for themselves, and not just take on the opinions of their families or friends; “we do tell them our thoughts and feelings, but always try to ask them what they feel and why they feel that way.”
I feel fortunate to have been raised by parents who didn’t shy away from discussing political topics with me, and I know it has inspired my writing – in fact, my first ever published piece as a writer was a letter to the editor of my local newspaper my senior year of high school. While it can feel overwhelming to know where to put our energy into getting involved, and even more so in regards to knowing how to approach these topics with our children, I hope to inspire you to raise young men and women who know how to sift through information, news, and research to make informed political decisions, because raising a reader is raising a good citizen.
This article appears in the June/July 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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