One of the most important parts of parenting is making sure our kids grow up to understand that their individual life is innately tied to others. It’s not just about getting that A and making it in life as an individual. Our lives are directly tied to many others. We are each an essential part of our community. Our well-being is dependent on the community’s well-being, and vice versa.

While post is timely because it’s about a current event…it is also timeless, as these opportunities happen all the time in our communities. I’ll share what’s happening in one public school district in the United States, and how it’s led me to think about how we get our kids involved from birth in the democratic process. A healthy society is based on the idea that everyone is worthy of dignity and respect, and our cooperation and care for each other matters.

What could be more important than being grounded in those important ideals as we enter an election year?

The Back Story

Recently, in our public schools in Durham, NC, a series of mistakes, bad decisions, and policy changes from the Board of Education wreaked havoc for over 1300 classified staff – the very people who keep our schools functioning. They were left with uncertainty about their pay and without a seat at the negotiation table.

As a parent of two children in the school system, I found myself with a huge learning opportunity and chance to stand up for what’s right. And, like many parents in our district, it became clear to us that this was also an opportunity for our children to see democracy in action…to learn how to advocate for what they believe in…and to watch how change gets made at the local level.

How to Get Kids Involved

Be the change you wish to see.

Like most things in parenting, modeling the behavior that matters to us makes the biggest difference to our kids. Three ways to do this:

1) Wonder out loud…then follow up

“I wonder what’s being done at the leadership level about filling the teacher vacancies at your school?”

“I wonder who we could write to about getting a stop sign put at this crosswalk so it’s safer?”

“I wonder who’s running for mayor this year and what their plans are for making our town better?”

Simply asking the questions shows our kids that we have agency over the world we live in. It’s like a detective game or a puzzle to solve to figure out how to make change happen. Most towns have facebook groups dedicated to different aspects of local advocacy. Enjoy looking up the answers together. 

2) Show up

Attend the local government meetings and bring your kids. Join the rallies. Jump on any opportunity that your schedule allows. Talk about how it makes a difference to the people organizing and to the members of the community who are impacted by current events and situations when their community members show up. People are out here bravely organizing and serving in public office, it matters that we attend and show our support. 

3) Be vocally joyful in your activism

The father of individual psychology, Alfred Adler gave us a fancy German word for the amazing feeling we get when we involve ourselves in community-based social interests: Gemeinschaftsgefühl

It loosely translates to “together ships feeling,” or, maybe better said, community focus. Adler suggested that being involved is key to our mental health. To act in service of others and to focus on the needs within our circles is part of what makes us human and keeps our society functioning. Let your kids see how rewarding it is to participate.

Here are some other ideas from Shannon Brescher Shea on involving our kids in local government.

Circling Back to the Situation in Durham

In case you were wondering how this all looked in practice in the last few weeks in our house:

  • We wondered together:  Who decides what the school staff should be paid? How do they go about making that decision? Then, we looked up the answers.
  • We showed up as a family to the rallies with our homemade signs.  We volunteered to take on staff shifts when there was a need in the school.
  • We wrote letters and signed petitions.
  • Each family member took on a job at our latest PTA meeting (my son lined up chairs, my daughter showed people where to go, my husband sold t-shirts at the fundraising table, while I ran the slide show.)
  • We talked about how good activism feels. It’s fun, it’s uniting, and you experience your voice being heard.
  • The union demands have not been met yet, so we talked about how we’re determined to keep going!

Practice Democracy at Home

Another way to have kids understand democracy is to practice it at home. The next time you’re working out a family problem (too many shoes in the middle of the hallway, missed alarm clocks in the morning, squabbling over screen time… for some hypothetical examples), try a democratic process.

  • Identify the problem and the needs of the situation
  • Give everyone a voice – maybe go once or twice around the family and hear from each person regarding their view of the issue
  • Brainstorm solutions – accept all ideas and let creativity shine!
  • Vote on a solution you’ll try for a week, before gathering back together to talk through how it’s going

In what ways do you involve your kids in the democratic process?