5 Ways to Get Tweens and Teens Politically Active

With the current political environment, it’s more important than ever to make sure your tweens and teens understand what’s going on nationally and globally—and that their voice matters in elections. Whether you take your children to marches or protests, read them books, or watch and discuss the news together, you can raise your tween or teen into a well-informed adult who is actively involved in democracy. Here are five things you can do with your children, tweens, and teens to ensure they become politically active adults.

When I was in sixth grade, my middle school held a mock election during the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore election in 2000. Leading up to mock Election Day, social studies teachers taught the student body about the democratic process and educated us on the candidates’ political stances, so we could make well-informed decisions. While I don’t remember which candidate I voted for or who won the mock election, I do remember the anticipation my class buzzed with as we waited for the principal to announce the winner.

That was my first experience with politics. And while participating in my school’s mock election didn’t inspire me to pursue a career in politics, it, and the actual election’s hotly contested outcome (ultimately decided by the Supreme Court of the United States), cemented the importance of doing my civic duty. I knew that once I turned 18, I needed to register and vote in elections to make my voice heard.

I have since voted in three Presidential elections. The 2016 election cycle was the most contentious (but you don’t need me to tell you that) because how we consumed and shared information had evolved. With the breakneck pace at which media is being shared and the tumultuous political landscape of today, how can we ensure our children will be well-informed, active participants in democracy?

Encourage an Informed Interest in Politics

Regardless of where you live, how much money you make, or what your career is, politics impact your day-to-day life whether you know it or not, says Anil R. Beephan, Jr., a town councilman at-large in East Fishkill in Dutchess County; he is a representative for a New York state senator for Dutchess and Putnam counties, and an active county committee member. He knows first-hand how politics and government can affect lives. As a first-generation American, Beephan watched his parents, who are from Trinidad and Tobago, go through a difficult immigration process. “I always thought that one day I’d like to get involved in government and see what it’s like to maybe help fix that process,” he says. Participating in government club in high school and the 2012 election solidified his interest in politics.

James Kuntz, a junior at the Dalton School in Manhattan, credits the 2016 election for his interest in politics. “There was something about the election cycle that really drew me to it, and I think it was also my age,” he says. “I was 13, 14 years old leading up to the election, so I was beginning to find my own interests and politics happened to be one.” That interest led him to found Teens in Politics, an organization to help teens find political internships in the NYC area.

Another reason Kuntz says he founded Teens in Politics? He says he’s noticing a lot of political apathy in his generation, and “it’s a real problem for democracy.” So how can you prevent that political indifference in your tweens and teens? 

Read with your kids.

From an early age you can encourage an interest in civics by reading political- and activism-related books to your children. Try reading Voting with a Porpoise, written by Rock the Vote board member Russell Glass and children’s book author Sean Callahan, which brings the election process to life under the sea. If You’re Going to a March, by Martha Freeman, illustrates what kids can expect if they’re attending a march with their parents.

For the elementary school set, Eleanor Roosevelt’s When You Grow Up to Vote explains how the government works for the people—from the police officers in your town all the way through the role of the SCOTUS—and instills the importance of voting in kids. Originally published in 1932, after Franklin D. Roosevelt was first elected as President, this book was updated and re-released in September.

Tweens and teens can read denser books, such as biographies about presidents, nonfiction works about history, or any of the number of recently released books about the current political environment.

Take them with you, Beephan suggests.

If your kids are 18, carpool to the polls on Election Day, and if they’re not yet old enough to vote, they can still see democracy in action. Considering attending a march or rally for an issue you feel passionately about? Bring your kids along (even if they’re young) and explain what you’re marching for, why you’re marching, and how it makes you feel to participate. After all, modeling a behavior for your children is the best way to instill it.

Watch the news together and talk about it.

Kuntz and Beephan both suggest you start doing this when your kids are in elementary school. You should “really explain to them why [following current events] is important, what’s going on, and try to inform them at a very early age about the real facts behind each story and what’s going on in the media and government itself,” Beephan advises.

You can do the same with newspapers or credible online news sites. After all, encouraging an interest in following the news and current events fosters a curious intellectual mindset in children, Kuntz adds. And if listening is more your family’s style, there are a host of political and current event podcasts available.

Encourage your teen to pursue an internship.

“If you’re in high school, you’re at an age where you can take internships at the state senate, state assembly, or congressional offices, or even help out at the local town level,” Beephan says.

Kuntz, who is a member of his district’s congressional youth cabinet, aims to make finding an internship in politics easy for teens: “I’m very interested in politics myself, and when I was looking for opportunities to get involved in politics—volunteer opportunities and internships specifically—I didn’t find any place where the information was centralized,” he says. “The only way that somebody my age would be able to find those opportunities would be to look at individual members of the city council or state assembly or state senate.”

“You can also get involved with the political party when you’re in high school, more so you could even actively participate in campaigns,” Beephan adds. If your teen knows which party she identifies with, encourage her to research internship opportunities with the New York Democratic or Republican national committees.

Volunteer for a campaign together.

If you’re introducing your younger children to politics or you and your teen agree on a party or candidate, find opportunities to put your boots to the ground. Canvas neighborhoods and knock on doors to talk to other voters or sign up for a shift to make calls for a candidate.

In fact, Beephan says high school students have become more and more involved in campaigns. “It actually makes a difference because, when you’re at the door, people notice when a kid takes an interest in an issue, and it kind of makes them think twice. They question: aren’t you a little too young to be at the door?” he says. “But when a kid actually justifies why they’re there, why they’re doing what they’re doing, it kind of reinvigorates the person to pay more attention to what’s going on. I think kids sometimes underestimate the impact they have in the political realm, even if they can’t vote.”

Toe the Line

When encouraging an interest in politics, remember to let your teens form their own opinions. “I think it’s vital for the parent to not force their opinions on their kids,” Beephan says. “Trust that your kids are able to make a conscious decision on which side of the aisle they’d like to sit on certain issues.” Urge your teens to read opposing views of the same issue so they can figure out their own opinions.

And if your teen aligns with a different political party than you? “I think it’s actually a good thing because being in an environment where your views are being questioned strengthens your own opinions and forces you to reconsider things with a more critical lens,” Kuntz says—a perfect opportunity to bolster your teen before he heads out into the world on his own.