Vote Early, Vote Often!

Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is a consultant for Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.

This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on October 26, 2008.

I have a campaign message for parents: Vote early and vote often.

Although this may sound like a suggestion to become parents who are role models in corruption of the political system, it is actually a message about the important role parents play in the political socialization of their children.

Following the election controversy of 2000 and the national tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, social scientists, political practitioners and educators wondered how these events would affect the political  attitudes and beliefs of young adults.

In January 2002, a group of not-for-profit organizations that are national leaders in social initiatives commissioned a survey to explore these questions. The report, “Short-Term Impacts, Long Term Opportunities: The Political and Civic engagement of Young Adults” summarized this national survey of 1,500 young adults ages 15-25.

This data clearly point to the importance of parents’ political behaviors in shaping the attitudes and engagement level of their children as young adults. Below are important messages from the report.

Vote early

It’s simple: Take your children to the voting polls with you. In their report, 56 percent of politically active young adults reported going to vote with their parents compared to 21 percent of young adults disengaged from politics.

This not the same as deciding whether or not to pop them into their car seats and take them grocery shopping or leave them at home. This is an active, conscious decision you can make as a parent to influence your child’s likelihood to vote as an adult. It may mean choosing to go to the polls at a less busy (and less convenient) time to avoid lines. Plan ahead. Talk about what you are doing and how excited you are to take your child(ren) with you to the polls.  Help your children “vote” early in their lifetimes.

Vote often

In order for parents to have the greatest effect on their children’s attitudes, parents must vote consistently in most or all elections. Forty-one percent of politically active youth responded that their parents voted in every election, compared to 20 percent of young adults disengaged from politics.

Empowering politically active young adults

Yet the most powerful predictor of raising your children to become politically active young adults is discussing politics with them in your home. Eighty-seven percent of politically active youth reported discussing politics with their parents as compared to 25 percent of politically disengaged youth. Young adults who grew up in households where they discussed politics with their parents reflected many important characteristics related to political and social engagement:

  • 38 percent saw voting as a right and 24 percent saw it as a responsibility (total 62 percent).
  • 75 percent registered to vote.
  • 57 percent believed politicians paid at least some attention to concerns of young adults.
  • 56 percent believed they could make a difference in solving community problems.

Furthermore, twice as many young adults who grew up with political discussions in their homes believed voting is important (68 percent compared to 33 percent who did not grow up in households with political  discussions).

Learning to make a difference

Empowering our children to become active, engaged members of our society is about more than voting. It is about learning they can make a difference in their communities. In this survey, the majority of young adults whose parents discussed politics and took them to vote, volunteer at least once a year (57-60 percent) including a third (33 to 35 percent) who volunteer at least once a month. In contracts, nearly half of those parents did not engage them in politics (46 percent) never volunteer.

l believe the report’s summary (at www.youngcitizensurvey.org/csocial.htm) says it best: “The impact parents have on their child’s political and civic attitudes and behaviors cannot be overstated.”

“Parents who discuss politics with their children, take their children to vote, and make a habit of voting in nearly all elections raise children who volunteer, vote, feel they can make a difference in their communities, and see politicians and institutions as more open to being influenced by the public.”

“Conversely, parents whose own political engagement levels are lower raise children who do less, care less and feel less connected to institutions and leaders.”

Vote early and vote often with your children. Talk about the election together before, during and after you vote.  It can make all the difference in the world.