When I was growing up, my dad was a professor at Ohio University (Go Bobcats!). I went to Putnam Elementary School on the college campus, along with my sister, Linda. The two of us would walk up the big hill with a million steps (it sure seemed like a million) to his office after school and ride home with him and our other two sisters after he was finished teaching.
I will never hear the theme song of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" without immediately being transported to the back seat of our green Pontiac station wagon, riding home with my dad, and feeling safe and snug and happy with the routine. I suppose that ride home with Dad and NPR were the reasons I began to learn about "current events" (as we called it in school). Sometimes my sisters and I would have the treat of hearing Dad talk about politics with his graduate students. I always thought they were yelling, but Dad would assure us that it wasn't yelling—just "discussing enthusiastically."
My parents discussed national politics and local issues at home, too. They were, and still are, avid newspaper readers. As my sisters got older, they would get involved in dinner-table discussions of elections and politics. As the youngest of four girls, I was the last to graduate into the coming-of-age ritual of joining the political discussion. That is, except for writing to the governor when I was in elementary school, asking him not to close my school. I still have the response his office sent, which was treated with great reverence in the family at the time (encouraging my budding activist interests!).
When I was 7, my oldest sister, Karen, took me to see the late Paul Newman, who was at Ohio University campaigning for Eugene McCarthy. He had attended college there before World War II. To be honest, just this moment, I had to look online to find out who he was supporting; it really didn't matter much to me at the time. Even a seven-year-old gets a thrill from a campaign rally with Butch Cassidy, and I knew it was a cool and important thing!
I remember my mom taking me with her to vote at Morrison Elementary school. It felt very mysterious. That was partially because I got to go inside an elementary school that wasn't where I usually went—which was sort of like getting a sneak peak at another planet. I thought it was very weird that my mom knew where to go to vote in that alien world. Years later, I began voting in an elementary school in the neighborhood where I lived in Columbus, Ohio. It was oddly familiar, and I felt all grown up like Mom; things had come full circle from that fall day when I witnessed that exclusively grown-up activity: voting.
I still feel proud to wear one of those corny stickers you get after voting, and I wear mine all day. You know the ones, the "I voted" stickers? When I was a kid I figured that voting must be a really important thing if my parents got stickers for doing it.
I recently did a quick poll (pun intended) of my family members of all ages to find out how they think their relatives have influenced their voting behaviors. The common theme—from my parents, who are in their 80s, to my youngest nephew, who is 13—was that we share an assumption that we will all vote, no matter what.
My 17-year-old nephew, Robbie, said it best: "Of course I'll register and vote when I'm 18. I've never even considered NOT voting!" It's our family value and it's been carried down through the generations. Even my oldest sister, Karen, a hippie who once described herself as "about as counterculture as you could get back then," said there was never the slightest doubt in her mind that she would register and vote.
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!
• Support the school's election activities. Have the children collect the "I voted" stickers from their parents and bring them to school to see which class had the most kids who went with their parents to vote. Help them organize mock elections. Moderate a school debate about key national issues.
• Encourage children to take part in an online voting activity. Time for Kids and the Nickelodeon Poll conduct their own presidential "elections" in which kids can vote during the run-up to the national elections.
• Take the kids to vote with you. Make it an experience they will remember. If you expect a long line, bring a book or quiet activity for them. Take them into the voting booth with you if you are able, and show them how it works. My nephew said his fascination with the mechanics of the voting machines made him look forward to going to "vote" every year.
• Make sure they register to vote. Celebrate kids’ 18th birthdays by helping them register to vote!
• Make a big deal out of the first time they are able to vote. Go with them to the polls if they'd like you to do that. Commemorate this important coming of age.
• Watch the election-night coverage, and have your own party! Invite friends, neighbors, and family to watch the election returns and involve the kids.