A few years ago, when I brought my then 5-year-old daughter with me to vote in Chicago’s mayoral runoff election, she stood outside the polling place shouting “You voted! Congratulations!” to every person heading to the parking lot. And the cool thing is, she meant it.
My daughter has been voting with me—in my arms, in a stroller, on my shoulders, and at my side—for as long as she can remember. It’s a special thing we do together and the excitement we both feel to cast our vote for a brighter future is palpable between us. I’d like to think that sheer proximity to democracy-in-action fired her up for the American political process for life. At the very least, it couldn’t hurt, right?
The truth is, so many Americans decline to use their voice in each election. In the 2016 presidential election, a Knight Foundation study reported that nearly 1 million (43 percent) eligible voters did not cast a ballot. That’s a lot of people giving away their power and their say in the future.
And while elections, like candidates, are never perfect, instilling in my kid a sense of duty and pride around voting matters to me. When it comes to our ballots, I believe that even our youngest kids can play a role, setting the foundation for more involvement and interest later on. Here’s my advice for getting started and revving up your child’s excitement for Election Day—and beyond.
We always have been transparent politically with our oldest. At 6 years old, she might not understand the intricacies of our federal and municipal governments, but she does know what makes a good leader: intelligence, patience, bravery, and kindness, to name a few. My husband and I talk openly about what issues matter to us and which candidates best align with our views. We talk about voting as a means of taking care of ourselves and our communities—and the critical importance of using our vote to help improve the world for others.
Mince your words
If you think your children aren’t going to parrot back what you once shouted at a political pundit on TV—think again. I once overheard my first-grader interrupt her teacher on Zoom to share something unsavory I’d muttered about a certain political figure. I think my face is still red, actually.
One lesson here is that our kids are always listening and will manage to repeat your worst offenses at the most inappropriate times. But the far greater one is that your child’s introduction to our political process shouldn’t be about bashing people. We’re here to lay the groundwork for an active political future, and that means exciting them about the process and empowering them to make good voting choices—not scaring them off with harsh words about folks who don’t share our views.
Give them power
One of the best ways to explain the significance of voting is to let your children cast a ballot of their own. Make it something that matters to them, whether it’s a family-wide vote on a movie selection or a dessert option. Build anticipation and make it official by having each person cast their vote privately in the morning. Later in the day, come together to host your own version of election returns, (even if it’s as simple as tallying up votes!).
Use the moment to show kids that their opinions matter. With their one powerful vote—which is equal in this situation to yours—they can sway an outcome. And if they refuse to use that vote? Well, then they also forfeit the right to complain about what happens next.
Let go of perfectionism
You don’t have to be a perfect citizen to teach your child about the election process. You don’t need to know everything about the government or be an expert on every candidate. All you have to do is let your kid see you try. Show your little one that you’re committed to learning about the issues and making decisions that could shape your community for the better. Do your research and start a conversation about what it means to be informed.
There are so many simple ways to get your child actively involved in any election. Once you’ve done your research and chosen the candidates you believe in, invite your little one to help design a sign for your front window or lawn. You can also get involved in a postcard-writing campaign to encourage people to get out and vote in swing states. Or help your child find issues that matter to them most—like taking care of the Earth or treating others fairly.
Let them watch
I love the fanfare of Election Day, and I couldn’t wait to share that excitement with my little one in person at the voting box. If you’re voting by mail, let your child take a look at the ballot and show them how you cast a vote. Let your kid wear your “I voted” bracelet or sticker with pride.
This article was originally published in 2020 and has been updated for timeliness.