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Behind Curtain No. 1: A Lesson in Voting, for Kids

October 30, 2000|LAURA SESSIONS STEPP | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Early on the morning of Election Day, Lisa Benenson of Montclair, N.J., will drag her son and daughter, 8 and 11, into the family van and head for the polls singing "God Bless America" in a really loud, off-key voice.

Her kids, Will and Anya, will slip into the voting booth with her as they have every Election Day and watch as their mom selects her preferred candidates. Then the three will drive to school, singing "This Land Is Your Land."

"If nothing else, I know my kids will remember voting," says Benenson, editor in chief of Working Mother magazine.

Such plans are music to the ears of a new, nonpartisan coalition that is pushing a campaign called "Take Your Kids to Vote Day." Alarmed by the declining proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds who vote, coalition members ranging from the Council on Excellence in Government to State Farm Insurance have distributed brochures to schools and parents, promoted the idea in magazines and established a Web site (http://takeyourkidstovote.com) that features dozens of ideas for voting-related family activities.

Patricia McGinnis, president of the Council for Excellence in Government, says campaign participants are concerned that in the last presidential race, only 32% of young adults voted, a significantly smaller proportion than older adults. She and others believe that number can be increased gradually if kids see their parents vote from the time the kids are young. "If it's part of their experience, they will know what to do," she says.

McGinnis adds that research supports the theory of parental influence: According to a recent survey by the National Assn. of Secretaries of State, young people were more likely to vote if their parents voted and if they talked to their parents about voting as they were growing up.

Elections offer families topics that are far more interesting to talk about than homework and household chores, McGinnis says: "You can tell your kids why you're thinking the way you are, ask them what they've heard, what advice they would give you." Parents are not the only adults who can provide this opportunity, she adds. Grandparents, even neighbors, can take kids to vote.

Jodee Jackson believes the desire to vote grows out of a feeling of being engaged in the community. She grew up in a remote Oregon community in a family that didn't own a television, and she wants to provide her daughters, Taylor and Hana Wuerker, with a broader vision.

"We watch the news while I'm cooking dinner," says Jackson, a stay-at-home mom who now lives in Alexandria, Va. "Sometimes, something comes on and I say, 'Ooh, I wish they hadn't seen that.' But we talk about it. I want them to know what is happening in the world."

Jackson says this direction is paying off. Ten-year-old Taylor, who is especially interested in environmental issues, asked to stay up to watch the presidential debates on television this fall. When she heard Al Gore or George W. Bush exchange sharp words, she would ask her mother why they talked that way to one another. When Bush or Gore delivered a policy statement she didn't understand, she'd turn to her mother for clarification.

"I learn a lot listening to her," says Jackson.

Jodi Bartch of Olney, Md., took her oldest child, Adam, into the voting booth for the first time eight years ago. Adam's kindergarten teacher had discussed the Clinton/Bush presidential race with the class and "Adam wanted to see what it was all about," says Bartch, a physical therapist. "I explained to him that it is an obligation to vote and he should be a part of it."

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