Voting Booths

What Happens When Civics Lessons Come Home

“Last name please?”

“Perlman. Actually, there are four of us here to vote. It is the whole family.”

The volunteer at registration was caught off-guard.

My entire family voted in our most recent city election. That is not something you see everyday.

As research suggests, children often look to the adults in their early life to learn about why and how to be politically engaged — much like they do for other values and beliefs. However, what happens when parents do not possess the background knowledge to prepare their kids for political engagement? Without a clear parental influence at home, the best mechanism for encouraging civic participation exists in our schools.

If children do indeed receive an effective civics education, then perhaps in cases where parents are not politically inclined, the roles can reverse: can children motivate their parents and cultivate civic training at home? My experience suggests they can, and researchers agree, using the term trickle-up effect to explain students’ influence on their parents’ civic engagement. As we push to close the civic engagement gap, kids are teaching parents about government and how to be civically involved. This is another reason why infusing the school day with exposure to civics is so critical. Socioeconomic conditions can impact the degree to which a student receives civic socialization at home, and schools are a way to mitigate these inequalities.

A clipping from the local newspaper featuring Samantha’s mother with their dog voting in their city council primary election

Both of my parents grew up in Massachusetts, graduated college, work full-time, raised my sister and I and yet, they often ask me for information regarding politics and government. Recently, my mom asked me for my opinion on a certain news story she read as she thought I would have more background on the topic. I asked her about her own exposure to civics courses growing up. She had not taken any. Both of my parents try to stay up to date with national news but the gap in civic knowledge stemming from minimal, if any, civics education is the reason for their uncertainty in the civic process.

When I reflect on my own civic motivation, it must have begun in middle and high school. I canvassed for state political candidates in high school and interned with different branches of government at the state and federal levels throughout college. Although I did not experience much in the way of formal civics education, I always loved history classes, especially when we covered systems of government. In high school, I voluntarily enrolled in the AP Government class, which had only five students despite aligning with the fall leading up to the 2012 election year. The impact of this course extended beyond the classroom. In this class, we had the space to learn about the political process, discuss how it applied to the current election and then share the lessons we learned with our family and friends.

While I sought out opportunities to learn about and engage with government, civics was not a compulsory aspect of my public education. This gap in civics mirrors the experience of many young people in our public education system. Many students do not receive civics education in their homes or their schools, rarely read news about local or state government, and become alienated from the democratic process. We must collectively recognize the unbelievable need for Action Civics education that prioritizes both the civic knowledge and skills necessary to be an informed and engaged citizen.

My recent local election in Massachusetts had a voter turnout of 20%. If the local schools had a tradition of Action Civics, kids could teach their parents and increase participation in local elections. When we provide these vital civic tools to students in schools, not only will they themselves become effective civic actors, but they will also share this information with their loved ones, friends and community. I know that I did. The election I indicated above was the first time my entire family had voted at the polls together for a local election. Hopefully, this will become a family tradition.

Samantha is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at Generation Citizen where she advocates for an action civics education for all youth. In her position, she facilitates chapter management of Boston college student mentors as well as the advocacy for Generation Citizen’s teacher-led partnerships. Originally from Massachusetts, Samantha recently graduated magna cum laude from Emory University with a degree in History and African American Studies.

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