American Elections for Kids: Teaching the Political Process in Your HomeschoolJenn Hamrick
Every homeschool family can turn elections into education by following these four steps. Watch the video or read the summary below.
It’s hard to avoid talk of elections these days, and they make for a great learning opportunity. As children grow up, they need tools to understand the issues, to form their voting philosophy, and to engage with people in productive conversation. So how do you make elections a part of your homeschool lifestyle?
Step 1. Research the issues and platforms
You might use a list of issues from a party platform document, a voter’s guide from an organization you trust (your state’s family policy council), or make your own based on the issues most important to your family.
There’s a lovely tool called ISideWith.org that asks you questions about all kinds of different issues and matches you with candidates who align with you views and values. I found this exceedingly helpful if for no other reason than that it helped me think through some gaps in my policy ideas.
Areas of hot debate where I didn’t have a researched or thoughtful opinion surprised me and prompted further thought. Ask your kids these kinds of questions and listen to their explanations after you ask, “Why?” If you think they’re off-base or uninformed, that gives you a launchpad for potential research projects.
ISideWith.org results are a great conversation starter as you can share your results with friends and family and see the areas where you match and disagree.
Don’t be afraid to read opposing views and arguments. Oftentimes we see people from other parties as the enemy rather than as people — smart people— with honest opinions and ideals. And because of that, we don’t even listen when they make valid points or worthy criticisms of our own sacred cows. There’s no point in having a debate with someone else unless you can clearly articulate their viewpoint in a way they would say is fair and accurate. This is a chance not only to ask what they stand for but also why do they stand for that?
Step 2. Look into the candidates who represent the platforms
A simple comparison/contrast chart of the candidates you’re evaluating can prove very helpful. Look at their websites and track records. Ask questions such as:
- What is the candidate’s (or the party’s) stated position?
- What’s their policy history on this?
- To what degree does it line up with our view?
- To what degree will the candidate be able to impact this policy? (For example, a presidential candidate who wants to make changes to the executive branch’s policy has a lot more power than a single senator or representative does. However, a senator has more influence when it comes to actually crafting laws or a representative in appropriating the budget.)
Don’t discount third party candidates even if they’re not even on the ballot in every state. Remember, Abraham Lincoln was a third party candidate who many people thought didn’t have a chance at the White House! In fact, another worthy investigation is the history of American political parties. It hasn’t been a two-party system forever, and the parties we have today weren’t around since George Washington!
Step 3. Consider historical parallels
This is huge. While some of the issues facing us today are unique to our time, many of them are cyclical. Views on economics, foreign policy, immigration, criminal justice, and many other topics have all been hashed out before — so look at the history. Ask questions :
- What has happened before when our country (or others) implemented those policies? Why?
- Is there reason to think it could turn out differently today?
Step 4. Follow other elections besides the presidential election
While the presidential election is always going to dominate the news, don’t discount the state and local elections. Honestly, those are usually much more interesting and you have candidates who have more nuanced and meaningful positions that impact you personally. You can also find some great volunteer opportunities if you find a candidate you really want to support.
International elections and world government don’t get enough attention either. It’s easy for us Americans to become myopic and forget that important things are happening in other countries and on other continents that matter to people’s lives. Now, this may seem daunting as every nation has a different form of government, and no one is going to plumb the depths of detail for nearly 200 countries. But understanding a little about comparative world government forms, their strengths and weaknesses, their tendencies and general locations, vices and virtues, will go a long way towards making world current events understandable, and world geography more meaningful.
That’s one of the reasons we published Civitas this year. Civitas is a card game designed to teach players 10 and up about different forms of world government. It covers 8 major government forms and, between bouts of laughter and fun, prompts great discussion on political history and theory in a way that a middle-schooler can really understand. If you want you kids to be able to articulate what a banana republic is, what a military coup d’etat is, or what is the difference between a democracy and a republic, then Civitas is the game for you. Shortly, we’ll also have lesson plans available for folks who want to make a unit study out of it.
Really, the study of elections comes down to lots of talking and research. It’s a great opportunity to build research skills, communication skills, and understanding.
Be careful not to let the vitriol of newscasters, bloggers, comments sections, or even friends and family be your primary source of information. Those sources are often depressing, unfair, and hateful. I hate seeing my own positions mischaracterized, and I’m sure my opponents do too. Whether you love politics or hate it, no matter who you plan to vote for (or against), or even if you plan to vote at all, let’s do our kids a favor by engaging them with thoughtful dialogue and giving their research skills a boost.