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How do families teach children to be responsible voters?

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Every four years, as we Americans prepare to elect our next president, we are reminded of President Teddy Roosevelt's definition of our government: "The government is us; we are the government, you and I."

The fabric of our country is woven from Americans being active, responsible citizens. Yet, in one example of lessening participation, since the 1972 presidential election, when the voting age was lowered to 18, there has been a 20 percent decrease in voting among 18- to 24-year-olds, with only 32 percent going to the polls in 1996.

The next president will make more than 6,000 appointments, including most likely three Supreme Court justices. So, the future of many of our individual rights is at risk in the 2000 Election.

Elections in the United States give our citizens unprecedented power and responsibility. Furthermore, people in the United States died so that we can vote. Every time we vote, we honor them and our country.

The question is, how do we as parents and caring adults grow our kids into informed, active citizens and voters? Here are some tips:

1. First, be a role model. Discover how to be an active citizen yourself. Speak out and take action to correct community problems. Vote and participate in the political system. Volunteer for community projects. Join the PTA, attend town meetings, sit on town boards.

2. Make sure your children are aware of the good citizens around them. Good citizens participate and help in their communities, care about their neighbors, and participate in the democratic process. Good citizens might, for example, volunteer to help the elderly or less fortunate, speak out or take action to correct community problems, and organize or participate in community cleanup days, raise money for charities, encourage people to vote.

3. Start early. Research shows that good habits begin early. Use your opportunities to talk to even very young children - teaching them about democracy and pointing out good citizens.

4. Read newspapers and magazines. Watch the news. Encourage your children to do this also.

5. Talk about things. Have conversations at the dinner table or in response to television programs or newspaper articles about current events.

6. Learn ... learn ... learn yourself. Learn about the candidates and the issues. Determine what you think about them.

7. Learn about our government: How it works. How it affects every citizen. How it protects the rights of all people, makes and enforces laws, settles disputes among people, protects the nation from foreign aggression.

8. Teach what you learn ... Teach key democratic values. That means the values in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, values such as justice, freedom, equality, diversity, authority, privacy, participation, tolerance, patriotism, civic responsibility and respect.

9. Teach an understanding of the country's founding documents, political processes, structure of government, and how they function.

10. Make the learning active. Offer active approaches to learning about citizenship. Encourage children to debate and use decision making and problem solving. Have them read, analyze and discuss stories about people involved in the civic life of their communities in the past and present. (For kids to come to a view of themselves as effective citizens, they need to realize that civic action is simply hard work that can produce results.) The learning needs to invite participation. It might grow into activities such as community service projects. It could mean writing letters to government officials or newspapers to advocate opinions about issues. The possibilities are as broad as your imagination.

11. Support your schools in citizenship teaching. Ask teachers how citizenship is taught and offer your help. Make citizenship education a priority at home and in school, regardless of grade level, so that you can nurture the development of our society's citizenship goals.

Try these discussion starters:

Read aloud the following statement by Louis Brandeis, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939. Invite children to explain what the quotation means: "The most important political office is that of a private citizen."

Ask children: Why is it important for people to have the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion?

Ask children: What makes a good citizen?

What other rights are included in the Bill of Rights? Discuss the meaning of some of those rights.

Try this activity for citizenship learning:

What if there were no rules? Ask children to describe what would happen in your home if, for just five minutes, there were no rules. If you feel your child is responsible enough, you could actually role-play this situation by offering them one minute with no rules.

Once they've discussed or acted out some of the possibilities, explain that people follow not only legal rules, but also unwritten rules of behavior.

Ask children to discuss some of the unwritten rules almost everyone obeys every day.

Finally, help your child see the connection between unwritten rules of conduct and written, legal rules. Discuss how rules might have evolved from unwritten to written form.