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In the last presidential election, only one-third of the 18-24 population in the United States voiced their opinion on who should be the leader of the free world. Yet it is this same group of people who put their lives on the line in wars and rescue missions around the world. And even if your teen isn't destined for military service, he might be applying for financial aid or entering the job market. Or he might be inspired to protect the free speech rights of his favorite controversial musician or video game producer.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people don't vote because they're too busy, they're not interested, or they feel their vote doesn't matter. This pretty much describes how a teen might feel about anything. "Politicians don't listen to young people because young people don't vote. Young people don't vote because politicians don't listen. It's a vicious cycle...," says longtime political consultant Doug Bailey.
Teens also don't feel a direct connection to what the folks in the White House are talking about. Schools and organizations like Rock the Vote try to spread awareness, but they're competing for teens' attention in an already jam-packed life.
That's why political awareness, and especially activism, starts at home. Jan Faull, child development and behavior specialist, says parents are a child's social reference from a young age on. "Whether the kid says it or not, the parent holds a strong impression for a long, long time," she says.
Parents can get their kids involved in voting long before the kids turn 18. Here are six ways you can help your child become interested.1. Vote yourself
If you take voting seriously, so will your teen. If you neglect to vote, then she is certainly less likely to see the importance of it herself.
According to Faull, your kids are following your actions from as early as preschool. This is the time to start engaging your child's intellect and explaining why you vote and why you're voting for a particular candidate. This will help your child naturally ease into the process so when he comes of age, he will be excited to vote too.
Eighteen-year-old Kathleen Jones, from Scarborough, Maine, is planning on voting for the first time this November. She says she is excited because voting is important in her family. "We're a pretty big political family. We talk about the candidates and issues. We also tease each other about who's voting for who," she says.2. Make the issues relevant
Just like the rest of us, teens are effected by almost everything that goes on in the White House. But since it's not what their friends are talking about, they may not be aware. As a parent, you can show them how it's relevant.
Faull says the key to arousing your teen's interest is to not bombard them with information. "Give them sound bites of information rather than a long lecture," she says. "As you're watching TV, you might say, 'For heaven's sake, I don't agree with that!' or if you read something in the newspaper mention something like 'Now here's a person who has a valid opinion.'" Faull adds however, that you should not expect any affirmation from your teen -- but just know that they are indeed listening.
Your teen might find these issues especially intriguing:
These are just some of the issues that are part of your teen's daily life and his future. Just casually discussing them can be a good way to start the conversation. Once your teen knows that his vote can change laws that affect him and his friends, then it's easier for you to convince him that his time in the polling booth is worth it. Find out what each candidate has to say about all these issues and more at vote-smart.org. Without taking sides, the site breaks down all the candidates and their stands (including local elections) to inform voters before they go to the polls.
It's tough to make the distinction between exposing your teen to issues and forcing your opinion onto them. If your child is like the average teen, then you know that she doesn't like to be told what to do. That's because by now your kid has a mind of her own. "They're young adults," says Faull. "They're going to vote independently and not particularly for the same person as their parents."
Faull says sometimes teenagers will have an opposite opinion just for the sake of being controversial and to challenge their parents' thinking. This is not to say that you shouldn't share your views with them -- that's inevitable. But when you do, make sure your teen knows that she has a choice. You want her to develop a mind of her own and not just piggyback off your own ideas.
Also, you should not be worried that your teen might be making a poor decision just because it's the opposite of your own. Faull says that by the time people reach their late 20's, they tend to identify more strongly with their parents' political ideology.
Once your teen understands the issues, she'll want to follow how they are being handled by the candidates. Make it a priority to watch debates, press conferences, and speeches with your teen. The more familiar she is with the issues, the more exciting these events will be for her.
It's also good for your teen to start reading the newspaper, if he doesn't already. Initially, it's fine if he only picks up the paper for the Sports or Comics section -- at least he's picking it up! Eventually he'll start looking at the front page headlines. You can point out stories that you know are close to home for him. That will get him to start flipping pages for follow-up stories on a regular basis.4. Understand the election process
The 2000 election provides perhaps the most fascinating lesson about our political process in that the candidate who won the most votes did not win the White House. Does your teen know why?
As she gets more involved with the issues and candidates, the next step is to familiarize her with the electoral process. True, this should've already been taught in American History class. But our country's election process is very confusing and a quick refresher course never hurts. This is especially true if your teen has just recently come of voting age and probably does not remember all that she learned in the ninth grade.
Rockthevote.com does a good job of breaking down the whole process on their "Elections 101" page. Make sure your teen understands the difference between the primary and the general election. What's a caucus? What does a delegate do? What goes on at the National Convention? What's the Electoral College and how many electoral votes do you need to win the election? Who knows, maybe it's time that you had a little refresher course yourself. (The answer to the electoral votes question is 270, by the way.)
Being politically active means being engaged in your community, and for kids, this means being involved in activities outside the classroom. Key club, yearbook committee, French club, pep clubs, and sports are just a few examples of outlets that help teens develop leadership skills, social skills, and critical thinking skills. If they care enough about their school to hang out after the bell, then there's a good chance they care about education funding. Sure, today they might be debating Bonds vs. Sosa or Britney vs. Jessica, but perhaps someday you'll find them including Bush and Kerry in conversations as well.
Volunteering at rallies and conventions is another great way to get involved and see the action as it happens. Candidates are always searching for volunteers to collect signatures, register voters, and run bake sales. You teen will not only be helping a candidate he strongly believes in, but he'll also be meeting young people who care about the same things he does.
If your teen is ready to help and is looking for a place to start, MTV.com is the place to go. In an effort to get 20 million young people to vote in this year's elections, the network has launched a Choose or Lose program. Through the program, close to 500 cities around the country are having "Meetups" once a month for young people to get together and talk about the issues.
Freedom's Answer, a nonpartisan voter turnout campaign led by high school students, is another resource. The campaign's goal entails 2.5 million high school students seeking 10 voting pledges (from family, friends, neighbors, etc.) to get 25 million people to vote in this year's elections.
If your teen is of voting age, then make sure she gets registered to vote. She can do it online or by going to your local post office. Getting registered is an accomplishment in itself because only half of the country's 18-24 population was registered to vote in 2000.
Turning 18 is a major milestone for you and your now adult child. You've done a good job with everything from teaching him to ride a bike to helping him with the college entrance essay. Now as he enters the ever-changing 21st-century world as an adult, you want him to be informed. The best you can do is lay the foundation and trust that he'll continue to vote for the rest of his life and make the most informed decisions. Voting is just one of the many new responsibilities he'll have as an adult. And it's one of the more important ones.
Tanveer Badal is a writer living in New York City.