The past few months have been an eye-opening experience for me in regards to the limited knowledge some adults and children in my community have about civics. Defined as “the duties and the rights of citizens and how the government works,” knowledge of civics is a key component of community engagement. But for so many of us, civics has fallen by the wayside, especially as we try to keep up with the whirlwind of demands we face on a daily basis. For most of us, understanding the daily operations of government isn’t high on our to-do list. But as parents, how do we model for our children how to be good citizens, especially if we’re not certain what that should look like?
There is no “one size fits all” model for civics engagement, and there are many ways to get started. It’s important to remember this, however: Civics is about how we get our government to legislate change, and change happens by individuals at a local level who want to make their world a better place. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Subscribe to a local newspaper and get it delivered to your door
Flip through it in the morning and pass along a section for your child to read beside you. It doesn’t matter if they just stare at the advertisements or flip through the comics. Getting a paper in your child’s hands is a powerful tool to teach them to be aware of what’s happening in the community. For little ones, tell them about a town event or a story they might find exciting or amusing. For slightly older children, discuss community issues with them in greater depth and have them read an article that they find interesting aloud to you.
Read to your children about historical figures who tried to change their local communities. Read to your children about what a community looks like. Read to your children about standing up for what they believe is right. Read to your children about including others. Read to your children about how government works. Enlist in the support of your local librarians to find other great reads. Some excellent books to get you started are “Ordinary People Change the World,” “I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes Her Mark,” “Counting on Community,” “What If Everybody Did That?,” “The Invisible Boy,” “Duck for President,” “Grace for President,” “Marshall, The Courthouse Mouse: A Tail of the Supreme Court,” “Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution,” “My Senator and Me,” “If I Were President,” and “Look Where We Live!”
3. Teach your kids to be kind and empowered
Children who are kind but don’t feel empowered are often subjected to bullying. Kids who are empowered but not kind can learn how to bully. For our kids to be able to stand up for themselves and make a difference in their community, they need to see the value in advocating for themselves while caring for others.
4. Get involved in local politics, and remember to vote
If you want more funding for children’s programming at your local library, a traffic light placed at a dangerous intersection, or a new playground where your children can play, getting involved in local politics will allow you to make changes that directly affect your family. Whether you run for the school committee or join the library board, there are many different ways to get involved. If you don’t have time to serve on a committee, make sure you vote in every local election, and bring your children with you to the polls. Remember, your participation and engagement in your town or city not only has a direct impact on your children, it models how to be civic-minded.
5. Ask how your local schools are teaching civics
Civics shouldn’t be seen as memorizing a list of boring facts. See if your local schools have created and implemented hands-on, project-based civics education that gets students engaged in the legislative process. If they haven’t, petition your schools to include a comprehensive civics curriculum in the elementary, middle, and high schools. Luckily, there are several outside organizations looking to bring meaningful civics education into our schools. Non-profit organizations such as Generation Citizen are springing up across the country with the mission to empower our youth so they know their voices matter.
6. Remember: Civic engagement is about community
We all want our children to grow up in safe communities where they are cared for and respected. Making sure our local laws reflect our values is both crucial and critical, and we have an obligation to be involved in the process.