Instilling Citizenship in Youth

As we finish celebrating our nation’s Independence Day, it’s a great time to consider how to instill good citizenship in youth, as the future of our country. While our country is far from perfect, there are many things to appreciate about living in America, such as the freedom of speech and religion, the ability to vote in our democracy and protest, a melting pot of people and viewpoints, opportunities not available in many other parts of the world, and many beautiful landscapes.

It’s important to raise a thoughtful, intelligent, and involved community of U.S. citizens, which means that we need to role model and teach our children about the laws and freedoms that govern our nation, how to show respect and pride in our country, how to work towards positive change when our nation falls short of its ideals, and how to make responsible contributions to the community.

Here are some tips for raising a responsible American citizen:

Be a patriotic example. Make a regular effort to show pride and enthusiasm for your country and talk about what makes you proud to be an American.

Role model advocacy. While you likely have areas of real pride in our country, you likely also find areas needing improvement. Demonstrate to your teens how to work responsibly for positive change in our country, whether that’s through writing letters to your representatives, voting, protesting, or serving in the community. When it’s time for elections, take young children with you to vote and explain the process and how you decide what’s important to you.

Discuss your freedoms. Talk with your teens about the laws, protections and freedoms we have as Americans. Learning that everybody has the freedom to hold different opinions and beliefs is valuable. Discuss current events at the dinner table that either illustrate our freedom or demonstrate another country’s lack of freedom. When discussing current events, be sure to ask for your teen’s opinion and listen. If you don’t agree with their point of view, refrain from telling them they are wrong.

Role model research, learning, and discussion. It’s important for your teen to see you researching and reading about the nation, government, and community. It sets a great example to them as children and sets a standard for them as they mature. Make a point of discussing interesting topics you discover with your teen. Sometimes it’s easy for politics to creep in and make these discussions veer negative, but try to keep the conversation positive in order to encourage patriotism and good citizenship.

Offer facts, not emotions. If you listen in on political conversations among high school students, you will likely hear some students whose contributions are simply emotional and emphatic insults, with little substance. It’s our job to make sure our children see and emulate intelligent, fact-based exploratory conversations about politics. Engage with friends and neighbors in accepting, open ways that explore topics without putting down anyone else’s opinions.

Volunteer together. Responsible citizens pitch in to make their communities better. Families can find a way to contribute, maybe by cleaning up trash in a park or running a clothing drive locally. Research shows numerous benefits to teens who volunteer, but it also teaches them that we all collectively have a responsibility to improve the world in which we live.

Honor soldiers. Regardless of whether you agree or not with the wars or conflicts in which our country has engaged, we should still respect American soldiers that are sacrificing and willing to die for the protection of our rights. Teach youth early to honor the brave Americans that have served or are serving in the military.

Explain core democratic values. As a democracy, our nation has core democratic values fundamental to America: common good, justice, liberty, popular sovereignty, life, equality, diversity, pursuit of happiness, truth, patriotism and rule of law. These are great principles to open up meaningful and open conversations with teenagers.

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