Teaching Kids About the Process and Privilege of Voting

by Tom Minnery

I was a young reporter covering my first big election, a U.S. Senate race in New York featuring a colorful candidate named Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I'll never forget what happened one morning in New York City.

I was following Moynihan through several campaign stops. To his first audience he shouted a question: "How many are registered to vote?" About half of the people raised their hands. At the next stop he asked again, with a bit less enthusiasm, and he got the same result. I happened to be behind him that time, and I could see his shoulders slump a little. At his third stop, he didn't even bother to ask.

I have often thought back to that morning, wondering why anyone who wasn't registered to vote would bother to hear a candidate speak in the heat of a campaign. I suppose that the right to vote has become so routine that we forget what a privilege it is. But we shouldn't. We all recall those wonderful news photos from January 2005, when Iraqi citizens, newly freed from oppression and granted the right to vote for the first time in a general election, proudly held up purple-stained fingers to show they had indeed participated. Their exuberance reminds us how valuable free elections are, particularly when the absence of elections leads to tyranny, as it did so tragically in Iraq. By the way, the turnout in Iraq that year, despite murderous threats from al-Qaida, was 70 percent of eligible voters. Two months prior in the U.S., our own general election turnout was 58 percent. Not in the last 100 years has our own voter participation matched that of Iraq's newly enfranchised citizens in 2005.

Our freedoms depend on active citizens who understand some basic moral principles—right from wrong, good from bad—and who take the time to find and support candidates who will act on those principles. That's why Focus on the Family has been emphasizing the importance of people registering and voting. We expect to be able to report to you in a few months how many people actually did so as a result of our efforts and your prayers and financial support.

This basic privilege of citizenship should never be taken for granted, and it's never too early to begin impressing it on the hearts of our children. Here are some activities families can engage in to be sure that as children grow, they understand the importance of voting and they look forward to that important day when they, too, can participate as informed voters.

Activity for 0- to 3-year-olds
A very young child won't understand an abstract concept such as voting. However, here's a simple activity to teach your toddler about the election process.

Line up three kitchen chairs, and place one of your toddler's three favorite stuffed animals on each chair. Tell all your children that you'll hold an "election" to determine which stuffed animal will join the family for dinner. Give everyone a small square of paper (the secret ballot), and have each person vote for one of the three choices. Your toddler can draw a simple picture of his favorite, or you can jot down his vote.

Collect the ballots, tally the votes, announce the winner, and pin a paper star to the stuffed animal's chest to make him the winner of the election. Explain that in America we have the privilege to vote for our leaders, much like your family voted for a favorite stuffed animal. —Dr. Bill Maier

Developmental milestones
As you teach about elections, consider what's going on developmentally with your toddler:

Like the adolescent, your child is undergoing major changes in his body and mind; he is still learning about the limits of his power and independence, and he tends to feel intensely about nearly everything. If he likes something, he can be ecstatic about it. … If he wants something and you won't let him have it, you may be shocked by the intensity of his reaction.

Taken from the Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care, published by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., © 1997, 2007 Focus on the Family.

From God's Word
To help a child learn to make responsible decisions, parents have much to teach through modeling.

"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." (1 Corinthians 11:1)

Activity for 4- to 7-year-olds
You can help your preschooler or school-age child understand the concept of "majority rule" — where we abide by the decision of the majority (even when we disagree).

Reserve a Saturday afternoon for your kids to do an activity of their choosing. The choices should have a similar fun quotient, such as: 1. Play at a neighborhood park; 2. Swim at a local pool; or 3. Go out for ice cream. Note: Choose activities that will "split the vote" among your kids.

Have family members vote for their favorite, tally the votes and announce the winning activity. One or more of your children may be unhappy with the result. Empathize with the "losers," and explain that although disappointed, they'll need to respect the outcome of the election.

While you're enjoying your ice cream (that's what I'd choose), explain that in the United States we don't have a king or dictator who makes decisions for us. Instead, we (the people) have the privilege and responsibility to sign up to vote and then select leaders who represent our values.
Dr. Bill Maier

Developmental milestones
As you teach your child about choices and majority rule, consider what's going on developmentally at this age:

Developments in your child's intellect and speech will enable you to communicate with him in much more sophisticated ways. He will still be intensely curious about the world around him and is now better equipped to learn about it. More important, he will also want to understand how you see things both great and small and what is important to you. … This wide-eyed openness will not last forever. While you will greatly influence his thinking throughout childhood, during the coming months you will have an important window of opportunity to lay foundations that will affect the rest of his life.

Taken from the Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care, published by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., © 1997, 2007 Focus on the Family.

From God's Word
As your kids hear about the coming elections, now is a good time to discuss God's desire for us to submit to our country's chosen leaders. And what do the authorities ask of us? Our engagement. As President Abraham Lincoln said, ours is a government "of the people, by the people and for the people."

"Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God." (Romans 13:1)

Activity for 8- to 12-year-olds
You can use this activity to teach your tween about the democratic process and inspire him to help those in need.

Explain that your family will donate money to a ministry or charity. Choose two or three charities, and help your tween research each organization's mission. For example, you might look into Compassion International or World Vision. You could also visit a church-run food bank.

Let each family member make a persuasive case for a particular charity, explaining why he or she believes that organization is worthy of your family's donation.

After family members do their "campaign speech," tell your kids that you'll use the democratic process to decide. Have your family vote for the organization they feel is most deserving of the family's contribution.

Some family members may be disappointed with the election's outcome. Explain that although a charity organization (or a political candidate) may have fine qualities, the charity may fail to garner enough votes to win. Talk about how persuasion can sway the outcome. Also point out how citizens have to choose to vote in order to have a say in the process.
Dr. Bill Maier

Developmental Milestones
As you discuss the democratic process with your tween, consider what's happening with his mental and emotional development:

Plenty is going on — physical growth, maturing emotions, the acquisition of a host of intellectual and physical skills, the shaping of moral values, and, yes, the gradual approach to that eventful transition to adulthood known as adolescence. All of these changes are important and need plenty of parental guidance, prayer and input. This is not time for Mom and Dad to put their parenting skills on autopilot as their child cruises through the elementary grades.

Taken from the Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care, published by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., © 1997, 2007 Focus on the Family.

From God's Word
As your tween grows, continue to teach biblical values that inform good decisions, including the choice of good leaders.

"Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." (Deuteronomy 6:5-7)

Discussion for 13- to 18-year-olds
Teens are learning about citizenship and democracy at school. As the election approaches, it's also likely that they've noticed the avalanche of radio and TV commercials advocating for particular candidates.

Ask your teens what they've heard about candidates or political parties. Then, explain what you know about a certain candidate or political party. Don't be afraid to state your opinion, but support your position with reasonable arguments.

For example, you might say, "We think that Mrs. Smith is the best candidate for governor because she believes that people who work hard should be allowed to keep more of their own money." Then explain what taxation is and what percentage of each dollar you earn goes to federal, state and local taxes. You might also say, "I won't vote for Mr. Green because the U.S. Army says he lied about his military service. We need to be able to trust our political leaders."

Talk about the responsibility and privilege of voting, and explain how voting is a way to be involved in government and culture. Check out FocusOnTheFamily.com/SocialIssues for more about how your involvement in the political process is a continuation of your faith. —Dr. Bill Maier

Developmental milestones
With teens, you're able to have in-depth conversations about how voting affords the opportunity to represent your values. Here's what's going on developmentally:

Teens tend to find at least one group they identify with that provides friendships, fun and a sense of identity. Church and service organizations, athletics, performing arts, academics and even political/social activism will bring kindred spirits together. Idealism may flourish during these years, and commitments made to God and basic values can be fervent and life-changing. If you share one or more of these interests, you can cement deep and satisfying bonds with your teenager.

Taken from the Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care, published by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., © 1997, 2007 Focus on the Family.

From God's Word
Encourage your teen to seek God's wisdom as she embarks on the great responsibility she has to influence the political process as well as those around her.

"If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him." (James 1:5)

My Vote Matters
Check out "A Single Vote," an Adventures in Odyssey audio drama in which Whit tells about how a single vote can make a difference. Find it in the "Heroes" album.

Are you registered to vote? If not, get started and register today. Commit2Vote2012.com.

This article appeared in the August/September 2012 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "We The People ... ." Copyright © 2012 by Focus on the Family and Dr. Bill Maier. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.

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