My parents continually stressed that it was their responsibility and privilege as U.S. citizens to vote. They led by example, and their model has carried down through the generations. My grandparents talked about the candidates and the issues with us, and with our parents before us. Women were only given the right to vote in 1920, a few years before my parents were born. So my grandmothers felt strongly about voting. I hope their great-granddaughters realize they are not so far away from a time when women couldn't vote at all.
Like most families, we don't always agree. But that's OK; my dad remembers as a kid that his parents were Republicans, and many of his relatives, who were mostly Indiana farmers, were Democrats. The Depression and the New Deal had a great effect on them. His father, uncles, and aunts would get into some spirited discussions, and there was plenty of razzing all around. Along with that went the occasional good-humored questioning of the dissenters' intelligence. But at the end of the day, they were family, and no politics would divide them. That still holds true. My parents sometimes joke about canceling out each other's votes by choosing opposite candidates, but they still vote. Whether at the polls, at home in early voting, or by absentee ballot, they always vote.
The unspoken message in my family: Vote what you believe, but always vote.
We've had great role models for civic responsibility in my family. I don't remember anyone ever telling me to vote or lecturing me on my civic duty. I am certain, however, that my family's approach to voting has had the greatest influence on my value for this American birthright. School activities, like mock elections and discussions of campaigns can be a big influence, too. But kids learn more from family examples than anything else. According to a 2002 survey by the University of Maryland, nearly half of 18- to 25-year-olds registered to vote said their parents took them to the polls to vote, and almost 60 percent said their parents talked to them about politics when they were younger.
So how can you make sure your grandchildren, children, nieces, and nephews have strong voting ethics? Here are some tips:
• Take it seriously, but have fun with it. Let them know that you think voting is a big deal, a privilege, and a right. Talk about the issues and also about how the voting machines work. Have a mock election right in your home to determine who gets to choose the meals for a week or what television shows you'll watch together.
• Suggest the children in your family interview older family members about their voting experiences. Encourage kids to ask questions such as, "Who was the first person you voted for?" and "Where did you vote?" Ask kids to find out whether you or another relative has worked on a political campaign, or how voting machines have changed over the years.
• Think about what interests children their age. Gear your discussions around issues they can grasp. Sometimes making analogies to local issues or to their school elections helps make it real to them. Be sure to explain how local examples relate to larger issues, such as the presidential elections.
• Take advantage of this year's elections. Presidential elections get so much attention that even young children are aware of them, and teens may have formed opinions. Election year offers great "teaching moments."
• Talk to kids as you would to friends, making no judgments. Discuss your opinions and listen to their opinions. Make sure they know it's OK to disagree with you. Encourage them to speak their minds and explain that voting is a concrete way to voice your opinion. A friend's daughter told me the only time she felt like her dad talked to her as an adult was when they talked about politics. She couldn't wait to register to vote!