Raising children to become good citizens doesn't happen by chance. It happens because parents, schools, and communities develop good citizens. And frankly, we need to do a better job.
Children can be inspired, equipped, and mobilized to make a difference in the world. Not only do children's actions help others, research shows it helps them become happier, more successful adults.
GenerationOn, the youth division of Points of Light Institute has a mission to help develop good citizens, from elementary through high school. Taking a lead to spearhead greater civic engagement, they understand that citizenship development takes place during childhood and adolescence.
In a democracy, children and adults express citizenship in three ways, through:
The more children learn to develop skills and abilities that support citizenship, the greater mark they make on the world. It's that simple. Democracies need citizens to play three roles and the more roles people play, the greater society thrives. Parents and educators influence how kids view citizenship and how they eventually turn ideas and passion into action.
When children are young, they learn kindness, respect, and empathy - internal strengths that connect them to others. You can't just talk about these feelings; kids need to experience them. Many programs like scouts, church groups, and generationOn's Kid's Care Clubs are places children learn and experience these positive values. But parents also need to reinforce values at home. How to Instill Compassion in Children describes ways parents foster these internal strengths through practicing compassion and teaching kids how to cope with anger.
Character education in the early years helps build strengths like honesty, responsibility, fairness, and compassion - internal assets that lead to happiness and well-being. These are the kinds of human qualities that foster responsible citizens, people who donate to food drives, recycle their trash, or help during a crisis.
Many people believe that being a responsible citizen is enough. While it is clearly a foundation to developing healthy, successful young people and adults, democracies demand much more of its citizens.
In order for communities to grow and thrive, people must step up and take leadership roles. Many children as young as ten have the capacity to inspire and mobilize others. Consider the story of Eden Eskaros, who on a recent visit to Mexico noticed children were not wearing shoes. When she returned home, this ten-year-old enlisted the aid of her community and sent over 1,000 pair of shoes to her new friends south of the border.
When children learn to improve their communities, they develop the capacity to organize others. They acquire problem-solving, planning, time management, and marketing skills. They learn about community agencies and how local governments work. Experiences that involve teamwork, collaboration, and interaction are training grounds for future organized citizens, people who set goals, work within established systems, and motivate others to help. These kinds of citizens coordinate food drives, develop recycling programs, or take part in community-action committees.
Are responsible and organized citizens enough? Not quite. An innovative, growing democracy demands even more of us.
Just like businesses require innovation and the ability to respond to change, so do communities and nations. By the time children reach adolescence, their brains are capable of understanding complex issues and exploring the root causes of problems. In order for democracies to thrive, citizens must question and respectfully debate how to improve society -- how to change established systems that are inefficient or unjust.
Service-learning, particularly in the high school years, offers young people unique opportunities to link what they learn in the classroom to real world situations in their communities. Often, these experiences push them out of their comfort zones to see the world in new ways. But service-learning need not be confined to classrooms. In fact, opportunities abound for families to learn and serve together. These experiences are often transformative for teens and teach them how to think critically about the world around them. How Teenagers Become Passionate About Giving describes this transformative process that involves confronting moral dilemmas and reflecting on the values instilled during childhood.
Service-learning experiences during adolescence train teens to become innovative citizens, people who see beyond surface causes and effect change in their communities and beyond. These kinds of citizens question why people are hungry, debate the solutions to global warming, or investigate the relationship between race and poverty.
No matter how young or old, everyone can make their mark on the world through good citizenship. But we have the capacity to help children and teenagers become GREAT citizens -- compassionate people who are responsible, organized, and innovative. Not only will they serve the good of the nation but they will become tomorrow's ethical business leaders, parents, and workers. While we know this is how democracy thrives, there is one hitch. Citizenship is developed during childhood and adolescence.
Parents, educators, and community leaders can help kids become part of generationOn -- a new generation of young people who are prepared to take responsibility, lead others, and tackle tomorrow's social and environmental challenges.
Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What kind of citizen? The politics of educating for democracy. American Educational Research Journal, 41(2), 237-269.
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education.
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©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.