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Democracy in Action

Whether your family discusses politics around the dinner table or changes the channel every time a campaign ad comes on, chances are your children have noticed that something big is brewing. Even if you don’t talk about politics much, the presidential election every four years is a good opportunity to make your child aware of what it is to be a member of a voting public.

Signs and advertisements
Notice the signs around your neighborhood, dotting lawns and taped onto windows. When an ad does come on TV or the radio, ask your child what he thinks it’s trying to say. While it’s always good to talk about the intent behind commercials, political ads are particularly rich fodder for discussion. What do the makers of this ad want us to think? How is that like or different from how we think now? Does the ad make us want to change our mind? Or does it strengthen our opinions? Why do politicians make ads in the first place? How did people get elected before there were radios and televisions?

Government structure
An election is a great opportunity to talk about the structure of our government. What’s a democracy? What do donkeys and elephants have to do with it? What’s the difference between city councilors, state senators, U.S. senators and other elected officials? What are the roles of the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Supreme Court, the Cabinet and the president? Even as I write the questions, I realize how much I’ve forgotten. What a great way to model lifelong learning as you look up the answers to the questions your child poses.

Notice the world
If the president is in charge of helping our nation be the best it can be, what does your child think that means? What’s an ideal place to live? What works well and what needs some work? If she had to outline the problems in the world that need fixing, what would she say? How do the big-ticket items in this year’s election like the economy, education and foreign policy look from her height?

Citizenship in action
After your child describes the problems that he sees, encourage him to do something about it. Perhaps he can contact the Department of Public Works to fix the sidewalks around his local playground. Or he might write a letter to his local representative to discuss the increased class sizes at his school. Perhaps he can help register older teens to vote. If he’s open to it, bring him to your local polling place when you cast your ballot. I have vivid memories of “voting” with my parents when I was young and hope to continue the tradition with my children. Let them know that voting matters, and, during a close election, every vote counts.

Examine the problems on your child’s wish list for the world. While some of the items will benefit from a letter to an elected official, maybe some of the situations are ones that she can improve with her own labor. Has your child noticed the homeless people on Syracuse’s streets? Look into volunteering at a local soup kitchen. Is your child worried about the troops in the Middle East? Many kids have run successful drives to send care packages to troops overseas. Or maybe your street has a lot of elderly people who struggle to do yard work or chores that she can perform. Perhaps that will further inspire her, and you, to volunteer for Meals on Wheels this upcoming holiday season.

What next?
Even though the election that takes place at the beginning of November ends the campaign, it’s the beginning of the electoral term. What changes will we notice? Who will be affected by the change? What priorities should the president tackle in the next four years?

Dream big
For the first time, we have a person of color as president. What other firsts are still to come? What a great opportunity to talk about who has historically held the office and, as a result, who has been left underrepresented. Given the diversity of religion, class, sexual identity, race, ethnicity and gender in our country, our presidents have come from a fairly narrow group. Might your daughter aspire to be the first female president? What might our country look like with different kinds of presidents?

Part of the magic of an election is realizing how much say each individual has in the shaping of our nation. No president can exist without the voters who elect him. This is a great moment to impart just how important each person in our country is, and how each person’s beliefs, opinions and needs influence the choices that we make as a nation.

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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