Are Teens Confused About Politics?

Why political discussions with youth matter to democracy

Posted Oct 29, 2012

Voting for the candidate of our choice is an American right given to citizens 18 years of age or older. But the psychology of how we vote begins much earlier -- in homes and schools across the country where adults engage adolescents in meaningful conversations about the nation’s future.

In a recent New York Times article, Thomas B. Edsall, professor of journalism at Columbia University, reported his conversation with a Romney supporter in Pennsylvania. Asking why his state would likely back Obama, the Romney supporter replied, “People are stupid. City and state officials eliminated civics from our curriculum. The students don’t know about civics, they don’t know about our history, our government, our constitution.”

Admittedly, my first reaction to this comment was one of anger. Usually, people call other people “stupid” when they are so stuck in their own worldview that they can’t engage in respectful dialogue with others. But I took a deep breath, and asked the next and most important question.

Are we failing to prepare children and teens to knowledgeably vote for candidates they believe will make positive contributions to society? The issue is not whether they will grow up to be Republicans or Democrats, but whether they will vote with a thorough understanding of the issues. Or, in many cases, whether they will vote at all.

Peter Levine, Director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) did an excellent job of reviewing the current status of U.S. civics education in a recent Huffington Post article. CIRCLE’s research found most states still have civics education programs but often they are not required until senior year. He believes this is very often “too little and too late.”

The outcomes we want from young people are the skills to analyze current events and issues, compare multiple ways of thinking about those issues, engage is respectful dialog and deliberation, and come to informed decisions. If we judge ourselves by whether we’ve achieved these outcomes, I agree with Levine that we have fallen short.

Today’s Teen is Tomorrow’s Voter

Raising future voters and engaged citizens doesn’t happen by chance. In my article, Are We Raising Good Citizens? I show the developmental pathway by which children grow to believe in their abilities to help solve societal problems. 

The teen years are particular important to developing the kinds of skills emphasized by Levine. They are critical thinking skills. The teen brain is capable of developing the abilities to review, analyze, and synthesize information, and then make decisions. The way these skills are developed is through engagement by teachers, parents, and civic leaders. It is not by telling adolescents what to think. It is by showing them how to think.

From Confusion to Engagement

There are so many rich issues for discussion in this year’s election. And those issues will continue to be important in the years to come. Pick an issue – any issue. Discuss the economy, jobs, taxes, education, women’s rights, same-sex marriage, illegal immigration, health care, energy independence, or defense.

These issues are confusing to many adults, not just young people. Frankly, many teens are informed and deeply engaged in these issues. But many are not. The more we listen, discuss, and learn, the better informed all of us become as voters.

Election time is a great time to have these discussions. But don’t stop there. We need to be talking in between elections too! In conversations about politics, answering the following questions helps us and our children move from confusion to true engagement.

  1. What are both sides of the issue?
  2. What evidence has been presented to support one side or the other?
  3. Where are you getting your evidence? (From multiple unbiased sources?)
  4. What are the values implicit in each side of the issue?  
  5. How do those values conflict with or support your personal values or beliefs?  
  6. What’s the big picture? Weighing your personal conflicts and the evidence, what do you think is the best path for the country?

If you delve into these questions, young people will be well on their way to becoming good decision-makers on election days in years to come.

Don’t be afraid to respectfully share what you think with your student or teen. But be prepared to listen, engage, and support your own thinking with the same depth of thinking you want to encourage in them. The more teens are able to think critically about national and global issues during adolescence, the greater capacity they have to grow into responsible, engaged, and informed citizens. With those skills, it’s unlikely anyone will ever call them “stupid.”

©2012 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and researcher working at the intersection of psychology, education, and youth civic engagement. Follow her on TWITTER or FACEBOOK

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