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Amber A. Hewitt Ph.D.
Amber A. Hewitt Ph.D.

How to Teach Kids About Civic Engagement

Research shows link between civic engagement and well-being in youth.

This post is in response to
Empowering Youth to Become Civically Engaged
Source: Rutgers

In a previous post, I wrote about civic engagement and why it’s important for youth to see themselves as change agents. Since then, we have a new presidential administration and have witnessed an uptick in advocacy and social action. Not to be missed at marches and demonstrations, are youth holding their own colorful signs or perched on the shoulders of their parents. Here, I extend my prior post’s discussion to include an exploration of the relationship between civic engagement and positive youth outcomes, and provide tips on how parents, caregivers, and other socialization agents, can facilitate civic engagement in youth.

Civic, or citizenship, education is a necessary precursor to civic engagement. Almost every state, and the District of Columbia, includes civic education in state statute. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress report (2014), only twenty-three percent of eighth grade students performed at or above the level of proficiency in civics. So, what is civic education? Lin (2015) summarized the literature on citizenship education and provided the three definitions below.

1. Citizenship education refers to instructional practices, representing a variety of learning activities, which promote democratic thinking.

2. Citizenship education involves role pay, such as debate, where youth can critically engage and understand abstract concepts of democracy.

3. Citizenship education can include service learning programs where youth address community needs though design and implementation of a service project.

Before we discuss tips on how to facilitate civic engagement, lets first examine the relationship between civic engagement, youth outcomes, and parenting. Research on parenting and youth civic engagement has focused on four parental behaviors: modeling civic behaviors, emphasizing civic values, having political discussions, and providing a supportive home environment (Bebiroglu, Geldhof, Pinderhughes, Phelps, &Lerner, 2013). One study showed that youth who actively sought out information, were self-critical, and were open to new experiences had higher scores on civic engagement and positive youth development (i.e., competence, confidence, character, connection, and caring). Other studies show that community engagement may have mental health benefits for youth (Wray-Lake, Shubert, Lin, & Starr, 2017; Wray-Lake, DeHaan, Shubert, & Ryan, 2017). Research specific to marginalized youth, suggest that parental and peer support may facilitate marginalized youth’s belief in their ability to create change and their desire to work for social justice (Diemer & Li, 2011).

So, how can parents and caregivers promote citizen education and civic engagement in youth? Here are some ideas:

1. Parents and caregivers should first ask themselves the following questions:

a. How often do you talk about current events or things you have heard about in the news with your family and friends?

b. How often was politics discussed around your house when you were a youth or teenager?

2. Ask youth questions about current events in a manner that facilitates critical thinking skills and emotional competence.

3. Validate the lived experience and perspective of youth in relation to social and political issues. For example, avoid being dismissive or ignoring their thoughts.

4. Help youth form their own opinions regarding sociopolitical issues and encourage democratic dialogue.

5. Empower girls to engage in social action. Boys are often socialized to be more assertive and girls are often socialized to acquiesce with the status quo.

6. Encourage youth to critically examine “the way things are” by asking questions that highlight diverse viewpoints or facilitate perspective taking.

7. Encourage youth to identify a social problem, or need, in their communities and brainstorm an action plan that involves working with others.

8. Introduce youth to their local policy makers by attending community and political events.

“We, the people," includes our youth too.

Selected References

Bebiroglu, N., Geldhof, G. J., Pinderhughes, E. E., Phelps, E., & Lerner, R. M. (2013). From family to society: The role of perceived parenting behaviors in promoting youth civic engagement. Parenting, 13(3), 153-168.

Crocetti, E., Erentaitė, R. & Žukauskienė, R. J Youth Adolescence (2014) 43: 1818.

Diemer, M. A. and Li, C.-H. (2011), Critical Consciousness Development and Political Participation Among Marginalized Youth. Child Development, 82: 1815–1833.

Lin, A. (2015). Citizenship education in American schools and its role in developing civic engagement: A review of the research. Educational Review, 67(1), 35-63.

Wray-Lake, L., DeHaan, C. R., Shubert, J., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). Examining links from civic engagement to daily well-being from a self-determination theory perspective. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-12.

**The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect any official policy or position of the author’s employment.**

About the Author
Amber A. Hewitt Ph.D.

Amber A. Hewitt, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist specializing in adolescent well-being and resilience, is adjunct faculty at Simmons College and American University.

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