Building teen's civic toolbox – Part 1: Teens as engaged citizens

A look at how to use the presidential primary as fuel for constructive family dialogue, and inspiring your teen to be involved.

As the presidential primary race progresses and exposure to political ads and debates inundate the media, we are presented with a key opportunity to talk to the teens in our lives about civic duty and the political process. The world is becoming vastly interconnected as international trade, recreational travel and technological capacities increase. Our teens are the majority generation who will be challenged to fix our mistakes, engage in global humanitarian efforts, and lead our world into the future. Should we expect them to meet such a highly set bar with little prior experience or preparation? Instead of expecting our teens to engage on their own when they become of age to vote, let's help them build their civic toolbox today.

Use this primary season as fuel to do some critical thinking about candidates, and work through verbal discourse together. The key is to objectively assess all of the candidates and create a space where your teen can honestly share their thoughts and concerns on each (including whomever you support). Together you can research voting records, stances on key issues and policy developed by each candidate. Also consider their personality and leadership traits and help your teen brainstorm which qualities they think is most important in a presidential candidate.

Having these kinds of discussions can help your teen start thinking early on about their values and role in the political process. It engages them in critical thinking and dialogue, and exemplifies the kind of effort one should put into selecting political leadership. Plus, this investment in conversation can ignite a political interest in your teen, inspiring them to be more involved as a youth citizen and eventually voting when they turn 18.

I was able to ask a couple of questions to a teen who is completely committed to being involved in this year's presidential primary as well as other civic activities. Here are some thoughts from Kayla:

Makena (M): As a young person, why do you feel it is important to be involved in the political process?

Kayla (K): Our generation makes up a large percentage of the total population and it only makes sense to find a way to be represented in the government because we are citizens too. Many political decisions that pertain to youth seem like they are out of our control. Because of this, it is our job as young leaders to find ways to influence these decisions to accurately reflect the interests of our generation.

M: In which way are you involved in your civic community?

K: I am a Michigan fellow for one of the presidential campaigns for the primary season. Also, I am an intern for a congressional race, the chief programs director at International Youth Council USA and a member of my political party's youth chapter.

M: Do you have any advice for other youth who might want to be engaged in the political arena, but don't know how?

K: The most important thing in politics is to ask questions. If you keep asking questions, you will meet amazing people in the field who will be more than willing to take you under their wing. There are plenty of opportunities for youth to get involved. Call your local legislators and campaigns and ask if they need volunteers. Many of these offices and campaigns rely heavily on volunteers to spread their messages.

I met Kayla at the World Food Prize Michigan Youth Institute where she presented a short research paper to a roundtable of peers, Michigan State University faculty and community experts. Kayla's writing and presentation skills earned her a spot representing Michigan at the Global Youth Institute, an international event held in Des Moines, Iowa. She is a great testament to the capacity today's teens have to be leaders locally and globally.

Visit the MSU Extension Youth Leadership, Citizenship and Service website for more information and opportunities for your teen to grow as an engaged citizen.

Other articles in this series

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