“It’s like choosing between Darth Vader and Jabba the Hut. Neither option is good, you just have to figure out who is going to be the least amount of bad.”
That was how my fifth grade teacher described voting in the 1986 Ohio gubernatorial election. It is the one full sentence that I can with exact certainty recall him saying and I think of it every single election. It made an impact on me. A big impact, apparently.
Going with my parents to vote also made a big impact on me. I didn’t go every single election, but even when I didn’t make it to the polls, I still knew that they did. They talked about having voted that day. It wasn’t a question of voting. They did it.
The fact that they never missed an opportunity to exercise their right to vote, and taught me that it’s a right that not everyone in the world is lucky enough to have, also made a big impact on me.
A recent survey by the Girl Scouts of the USA found that 53 percent of 11- to 17-year-old girls had been to vote with their parents. While more than half is great, I’d love to see that number higher. Parents can and should model for their children what it means to be an involved citizen.
Take your children with you to vote! Kids need to see how democracy works, they need to see the actual wheels turns and see what is required for us to elect officials of our own choosing. Let them see the people who volunteer and learn first hand about the secret ballot. Yes, I know that kids aren’t great secret keepers, but talk about it, and voting etiquette, ahead of time and take them anyway.
Speaking of talking with them, review voting etiquette with your children before going. Let them know this is important, and not a party. “Children under the age of 18 are permitted in the voting booth as long as they are not interfering with the voting process,” according to the Illinois Board of Elections in an email to me when I asked if there was a limit on the age or number of children. (Maryland, for instance, caps it at two kids.)
Even if you don’t take your kids with you to the polls, it’s still a great time to teach them about our system of government.
With little ones, teach them the vocabulary. What’s a candidate? What’s a ballot? Hold an election to decide what you’ll serve for dinner the next night.
Elementary kids can understand parties and mascots. You can also discuss the different kinds of elected officials, from the jobs available and which ones interest them to the different levels of government. Ask them what issues they think are most important. What would they do first if they were elected?
As they get older, teach them to evaluate the campaign literature that clogs our mailboxes and floods our television screens. Talk about the issues and ask what they would include in their platform.
If you are like my fifth grade teacher and don’t like any of the candidates, you’re certainly not alone. Talk about that with your kids, give them concrete reasons if you have them and tell them what you’d rather see, for you and for them.