Helping young people think about elections

Joe Nathan

How can we help young people think thoughtfully about this year’s vigorous, and sometimes bitter, election campaigns? This is a great week to help young people gain a better understanding and respect for what’s happening.

Being in schools two to three days a week, I have a chance to talk with and listen to youngsters.  That leads to the first suggestion:

n Ask youngsters if they have questions about the election. Recently I talked with six- and seven- year olds and learned that some of those kids wondered if the winner of an election would hurt or even kill the losers. Negative ads clearly had an impact on these children. They had also heard news about the civil war in Syria. They put the ads and the war together, and wondered if we would have a war here.

This might sound far-fetched, but these youngsters were concerned.

It was a great opportunity to talk about the American tradition of election campaigning, but then accepting the results and moving on peacefully. The children were relieved to hear about this. They had been worried.

n Give youngsters a chance to be involved. When our children, now adults, were younger, they were included in various political activities. For example, these included going to candidate fundraisers and helping distribute campaign literature. We always gave them a choice about participating, and offered different options. This led to lively family conversations, along with a belief that being involved is a good thing.

Most campaigns welcome help, whether at the local, state or national levels. With the Internet, it’s easy to learn about almost any campaign. You and your children can contact the campaign and ask about ways to be involved.

n Help youngsters develop an accurate historical perspective. This might sound cynical, but the fact is, many of the more dire predictions did not happened. For example, when President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, some people predicted it would be decades before the Republicans won the presidency. It wasn’t. Vice President Gerald Ford took office in August 1974, followed by Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, in 1976. In the 1980 election, Republican Ronald Reagan was elected and eventually served two terms.

In a somewhat similar way, some predicted it would take decades for the Democrats to recover from the landslide loss of Democratic Sen. George McGovern, who recently died. Nixon received more than 60 percent of the popular vote when he defeated McGovern in 1972. Four years later, Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated Ford.

Many Americans are restless and pragmatic. They are not locked in to one party or another. This helps explain the fact that in the last 50 years, the U.S. has gone back and forth between political parties (Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson; Republican Nixon; Democrat Carter; Republicans Reagan and George H.W. Bush; Democrat Bill Clinton; Republican George W. Bush, and Democrat President Barack Obama).

We’re almost never totally satisfied, or dissatisfied, by election results. But we can, and I think should, help young people understand that despite our problems, people worldwide admire and appreciate the value of voting in our American democracy.


  Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions are welcome at [email protected].