You can use election year as teaching opportunity for kids

Less than two months away from a presidential election, a plethora of political messages are bombarding Americans -- and not just those old enough to vote.

Children of all ages often are faced with the sights and sounds of an election year, and experts say parents can use the next couple of months as a teaching opportunity.

Paul Fabrizio is a professor of political science and vice president for academic affairs at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. As an educator, he witnesses college students' political knowledge firsthand. As a parent, he sees the teaching moments available during an election year.

"It's impossible to avoid seeing political things," Fabrizio said. "TV commercials, radio commercials, Internet ads, as well as just all the stuff on the streets, signs in people's yards."

Although it's difficult for parents to control what type of political messages children see, they do have some control over the way these messages are used, he said. Parents can use these messages as an opportunity to teach kids about the political process.

Fabrizio suggested taking advantage of opportunities on the local level first. Many parents either don't talk about politics at all or only share comments about politicians being corrupt, he said.

"I would argue that, in fact, most politicians, especially at the local level," he said, "are basic, good people who care about their communities."

Discussing local politics first offers many benefits, he said. It is the simplest way for kids to see that politicians at heart are "real people dealing with real issues."

Politics can be confusing for young children, so Fabrizio recommended starting with the basics. Even some political phrases can perplex a young child.

"When we talk about politics, we talk about elections, about people running for office," Fabrizio said. "I think kids, when they first start out, they envision Obama and Romney physically running down the street for office."

However, seeing candidates going door to door or watching them participate in a public forum offers great opportunities for parents to show their children what "running" for an office really looks like.

Exposing children to these things on a local level gives them a better idea of how national elections are conducted. Because children are naturally curious, Fabrizio said, it should be easy to develop an interest in politics during an election year.

Don't, however, expect too much from children regarding political education. Fabrizio said he sees college students who still have not developed much of an interest in how the voting process works.

"College kids have a multitude of interests," he said. "Politics is seldom one of those interests. And so they have difficulty seeing its relevance to their immediate lives."

That's reflected in voting numbers.

Although voting rates for young people have been on the rise in recent presidential elections, citizens between 18 and 24 years old still maintain the lowest voting rate among all age groups.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in the 2008 election, Americans between 18 and 24 had a 49 percent voting rate, while rates got progressively higher with age. Those 65 and older had the highest voting rate, 70 percent.

The interest is something that inevitably develops later in life for most people, Fabrizio said, as their life is more affected by decisions made by politicians.

"It really comes down to how does the government affect you, and do you have the time and energy to really pay attention to politics," he said. "For the most part, kids coming to college, kids starting off, you don't have the time or the energy to devote to politics."

However, Fabrizio said he doesn't believe it's necessary to ensure that kids are educated about voting before they reach voting age because so much of it is understood with experience.

"It's something you learn as you go deeper into it," he said. "I thought I had a good understanding of voting before I voted. I really didn't. That's OK; like everything else, we learn more, have more experience and get better."

With two kids in high school, Fabrizio said he has seen the interest his children have in politics grow over the years. He said he sparked that interest by taking them with him when he voted.

"My kids seemed to really enjoy that," he said. "It started a conversation about 'Why this person over that person? What does this office do?' "

He said he has been passionate about teaching his own children about the voting process for two reasons. On a philosophical level, he said, he believes voting is one of the responsibilities of being an American.

"At a simple, human level, I like voting," he said. "I think it's cool to have a say, even if it is a small say, of who our leaders are. I wanted to share that feeling of excitement with my kids."

(Contact Hannah Boen of The Abilene Reporter-News in Texas at boehn@reporternews.com)

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