Since she was two years old, Sofie has accompanied my husband and I to the polls. Back then she got excited about getting a sticker and swinging on the voting line rope barriers. Now she has some knowledge about what’s happening and makes comments like this.
What lessons do our children learn from being part of the voting process?
- Their voice matters. It’s the basis of our American democracy and an exciting notion for kids who are often told what to do by all-knowing grownups. It feels powerful. Even though Sofie can’t yet vote for president, she likes knowing that one day she will get a say in the matter.
- People come in 50 shades of gray. And I’m not talking the erotic kind here. Kids are often taught that there is one, correct way to do something. Politics, on the other hand, is an arena of varying opinions and ideas that showcases the rich tapestry of people’s minds. Sofie might hear one thing about a candidate from a friend at school and then hear something else from me, and then she asks which one is true. Well, that’s a chance to explain to her about the different points of view people have. Our belief in something does not make another person’s belief wrong, just different. Which leads to the next lesson…
- Choices have consequences. Although in the media the presidential election often comes across as a mud-slinging contest, kids need to know that a vote cast for a certain person is a vote cast for cleaner water or lower taxes or increased funding for schools. Even at six, Sofie can understand when I tell her that voting “yes” on one of Rhode Island’s local referendums means more money will be given to keeping our bay clean, which means more happy and healthy fish, crabs and seals. (I know my animal-loving daughter’s soft spots!)
- They feel a part of something bigger. It’s exciting for children to be involved in something the adults in their lives are talking about. They see election coverage on the television, on magazines and newspapers in the checkout line. Sofie’s kindergarten teacher has talked about the election, and the kids in her class get excited shouting out who they would vote for. Often the big things seem to be happening elsewhere, but the presidential election affects everyone in the United States. And kids can get caught up in that energy of togetherness.
According to Eric Plutzer, a Pennsylvania State University political science professor, “The single most important factor in whether young people vote in their first or second eligible election is whether their parents vote.”
I remember going with my dad to the polls once or twice. He didn’t say much, but I found it exciting to be present with all these grownups, a magic curtain and a secret ballot that held the future of the country in its balance. Together with my father’s tight-lipped-ness about whom he was voting for, the whole thing felt very cloak and dagger to me. The allure led me to the polls once I turned 18.
Statistics show that once people start voting, they get into the habit for a lifetime. And voting can be contagious. In areas where Kids Voting USA programs are in schools, voter turnout increases because kids bring home knowledge and enthusiasm that inspires their parents.
Sofie is headed to the polls with me tomorrow morning. It’s her second presidential election and, I hope, the beginning of a lifetime of empowered choices.