Words can barely describe this election year, although TV pundits, bloggers, and everyone else, try as hard as they can. The campaign has been so exciting that it has ramped up interest on most political issues. Much of the attention has focused on registering young voters—an important accomplishment since the United States (the first modern democracy) ranks number 139 out of 172 countries in voter participation.
In my children's book, "See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House," the attention is on young voters-to-be who have years to go before they can mark a ballot. These early years are actually the best time to get little ones interested in politics. Researchers have found that kids don't magically become transformed into model citizens on their 18th birthdays. Most politically apathetic youngsters grow into apathetic adults. On the other hand, when students participate in mock elections at school, their excitement is contagious: Five to 10 percent more of their parents end up voting, too.
Start 'Em Young
In other words, we've got to start them young. How? Why not take the children in your life to the polls with you? Make Election Day a special day. While researching my book, I discovered that families in Costa Rica do this with good effect. Their voter turnout is much higher than ours.
Talk to younger kids about why voting matters. Start with things they care about, like polar bears and recycling or Sesame Street and new parks. Point out that we vote for the officials who decide what our government will do about these things.
Kids care more purely and passionately than anyone else. Preserve that fervor for a lifetime by giving them the chance to voice their opinions when they are young. Prove that every vote matters by running "mini-elections" with your grandkids. In what restaurant should the family eat this Saturday? Where should your next charitable donation go? Ask the children to argue in support of their views before everyone votes. (Warning: Schedule these campaigns only if you're ready to carry out their outcomes. There are no dictators in a democracy!)
Teens and tweens are urged to get involved long before they're 18. If you show kids how to make a difference, they can accomplish amazing things. Second-graders proposed legislation, for instance, and the ladybug became Massachusetts' state insect. In New Hampshire, a 10-year-old spearheaded a successful campaign to start a library in his hometown. A seven-year-old regularly ran a lemonade stand on the steps of the New York State Capitol and donated the proceeds to clean up toxic-waste sites. Eventually national media picked up her story, and New York State passed its own Superfund legislation in 2003. There's nothing wrong with occasionally shaming adults into good behavior.
What Circa-2020 Voters Think of 2008 Issues
I also tried to give kids a voice by creating “The KIDS SPEAK OUT! Survey.” Here, second- to ninth-graders can anonymously air their views on everything from whether or not we should be legally required to vote (82.9 percent say no) to whether all candidates should spend the same amount of money on their campaigns rather than raising as much as they want (46.6 percent say yes).
What do almost 900 kids from 30 states (the number of respondents as of this posting) label as the top problems facing the country? Global warming clearly heads the list, followed by the war in Iraq, and then good health care.