Newswise — It's a basic American right, and the cornerstone of our democracy. But could voting be good for you — and for your kids?
Yes, says a University of Michigan professor who studies human behavior —especially if you get kids involved in discussing election issues early in their lives, and show them again and again how voting matters.
If they're engaged in society in this way, he explains, research suggests they may be less likely to experiment with risky behaviors like drugs and violence, and more likely to feel better about themselves and about helping their community.
But as with any effort to steer people toward behaviors that are good for them and for society — whether it's voting, quitting smoking or eating healthy foods — you have to start early, and reinforce the message by repeating it often.
And what better time than this election season to start getting your kids on track to learn about, and eventually take part in, our country's most fundamental activity?
Right now, we're in the final month of the national, state and local campaign season, heading to Election Day on November 2. And for any Michiganders over the age of 18, the last day to register to vote is October 4; other states' deadlines come soon.
Kids of all ages, but especially pre-teens and teens, can understand a lot about election issues — but often parents don't talk about politics at home, says Marc Zimmerman, Ph.D., a research psychologist and professor at the U-M School of Public Health. And half of adults who could vote don't — missing out on an important chance to have a say in how the nation is run, and to show kids what voting is about.
The result? A younger generation that's missing out. "Only about one in five eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 24 votes in presidential elections, and there's been a steady decline over the last 30 years," Zimmerman says. "There are lots of reasons why young people aren't voting. One, they don't see how what politicians do relates to the things they're paying attention to. They may feel alienated from the process. Or they may not vote out of disinterest, because of negative campaigning that turns them off from coming out to the polls because they're disgusted."
Whatever the reason for young voters' poor turnout at the polls, Zimmerman says parents can do a lot now to ensure that their kids exercise their basic American right, and perhaps steer them away from risky behaviors too.
"We find that adolescents, especially high school-aged kids, are very important because they're soon going to be in that 18-to-24 year range. And if you don't instill some interest in voting, civic duty, civic pride and engagement in the world before they get there, you've lost them," he explains.
Lots of effort is going into helping the current young-voter population understand the important role they might play in the upcoming election, and to register them to vote, but all of those efforts are starting from behind because of the apathy seen in that age group today.
But, he says, we can still do a lot to make sure that today's teens and pre-teens become voters tomorrow — and reap the benefits for themselves and their society.
What's needed is the same kind of early, persistent effort that parents and health advocates use to encourage people to eat better or exercise more. "A basic principle in public health is that if we can reach people early in the process of their development, we can potentially instill in them a lifestyle that's healthy, and keep them having a higher quality of life into their adult and older years," explains Zimmerman, who co-chairs the Health Behavior and Health Education Department at the U-M School of Public Health.
His team's research suggests this can have a real and measurable impact, he says. "With civic engagement, we've found that high school kids who engage in extracurricular activities through church or community organizations are less likely to be depressed, they feel better about themselves, they're less likely to engage in drug use and violent behavior, and they're more likely to be productive citizens, take pride in their community and their country, and work to help people."
Church groups and community groups can do a lot, but ultimately it's parents who give kids a sense of civic and election issues, and help them develop the critical thinking skills to evaluate those issues, Zimmerman says. Once they have that, the actual act of voting is pretty easy.
So, in this election season, he recommends that parents take the time to talk with their kids about the candidates and the issues that they care most about. Kids can also absorb a lot from listening to their parents, guardians and other adults in their lives talk in a civil, rational way about candidates and election issues — including the concept that people can have different opinions, and there often isn't a "right" and a "wrong" on each issue, but rather a choice of options.
And even when it's not presidential election season, he says, parents can help kids understand elections for local and state offices and issues whose outcomes affect them — for instance, a school bond issue that might pay for computers, but might also raise taxes in a community.
"We're role models for our kids, and if we don't engage in the process, why would we expect them to be? They are mirrors of who we are," says Zimmerman. Plus, talking with your kids about voting, or about social issues, or about what you do in your work or volunteer activities, helps keep the lines of communication between you and them open. That might make it easier for them to come to you with problems, or to ask questions when something bad or troubling happens.
Voting today, even if your children are too young to vote, also means you can influence issues that will affect them as they grow older, from the future of Social Security, Medicare and health care to America's role in and response to world events.
In other words, for Americans of any age, understanding election issues and voting can have a positive psychological result. "Every vote counts, and it's a way to have your voice in the process, and a chance to make a statement," says Zimmerman. "People like to have a voice and to feel like they have some control, even if they don't end up with the same outcome they'd hoped for. And we know that most of the time, a sense of control in American culture is associated with healthy outcomes and health behaviors, especially in kids."
When you vote, he adds, you do it for yourself, but you also do it for others. "You're doing it for everyone else in your community, because you're expressing what your desire is — and it's through our expression of our desires that we get to work together, live together, and make the world what we all want: a safe and healthy place."
Facts about voting and helping your kids get involved:"¢ Only about half of all eligible voters in the United States actually vote in presidential elections, and about a third of eligible voters vote in lower-level off-year elections."¢ Among 18-to-24-year-olds, only about 20 percent of eligible voters vote. "¢ Among 163 democracies in the world, the U.S. ranks 140th in the percentage of eligible voters who vote."¢ Research suggests that children and teens who feel engaged in their communities are less likely to take part in risky activities or to feel alienated or depressed. "¢ Parents who take time to talk with their kids and teens about voting, candidates and election issues can help them feel engaged, and foster critical thinking and a sense of civic duty."¢ This year, the national Election Day is November 2, when Americans will vote for President, all of the U.S. House of Representatives, one-third of the U.S. Senate, and many local and statewide offices. "¢ The deadline to register to vote is October 4 in Michigan, and varies in other states. Some states allow voters to register on Election Day, others require advance registration.
For more information, visit these web sites or call these numbers: Publius (Michigan voter information, sponsored by the Michigan Secretary of State's Office):http://www.publius.org
State voter registration deadlines (compiled by the non-partisan League of Women Voters):http://www.lwv.org/voter/register.cfm?pid=deadlines
DemocracyNet (non-partisan effort of the League of Women Voters and Congress.org):http://www.dnet.org
Kids Voting USA (National non-partisan effort to teach students about citizenship and voting): http://www.kidsvotingusa.org Project Vote Smart (non-profit, non-partisan resource for information on candidates and their positions on major issues): http://www.vote-smart.org or 1-888-VOTE-SMART
Ben Franklin's Government Guide for Kids (from the U.S. Government Printing Office)http://bensguide.gpo.gov