Kyle Corbin has heard all the talk about political apathy among young people: that teens won't vote, that they don't care about big issues, that they refuse to get involved. He just doesn't believe it.
When he was a freshly minted high school graduate, Corbin, then 17, was tired of the contentious political scene in his hometown of Union, Oregon (pop. 2,000). "I thought, somebody has to do something about this. Why not me?" So he ran for mayor -- and won the election. He's been so successful at creating cooperation among leaders and increasing citizen participation that he's planning his next big political move -- a bid to become a county commissioner.
Corbin's story may be unusual, but he says political awareness among teens is not. "Kids get a bad rap when it comes to political apathy. But I think we're reaching a point where young people are more interested in politics than ever," he says.
But they don't have to do it alone. Parents can make it a family affair, helping kids learn to use their political voice, which will make them feel as if they have the power to change the world -- or at least their communities. These ideas will encourage kids to get excited about the vote.
When adults were asked which experiences instilled a sense of patriotism in them as children, they often mentioned seeing their parents vote, says Myrna Blyth, co-author of How to Raise an American and director of the Take Your Kids 2 Vote campaign (TakeYourKids2Vote.org). Hold off going to the polls until you can bring your kids with you, even if you have to pull them briefly out of school. When they see how important voting is to you, they're more likely to do it themselves when they're old enough.
Help your teen make a thoughtful choice by discussing the pros and cons of different candidates or by sending him to Web sites such as VoteSmart.org or GlassBooth.org, which gauges your feelings about issues such as immigration and the Iraq war, then tells you which presidential candidate most closely aligns with your views.
Grab the popcorn and settle in with a great political film, like the Jimmy Stewart classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or the more recent Kevin Kline heartwarmer Dave; both make good fodder for a discussion about political ethics and one person's ability to make a difference. For an even more onpoint look at teen political participation, screen 18 in '08. The 35-minute documentary, directed by 19-year-old David Burstein, features footage of a bipartisan array of political figures, including senators Chuck Hagel and Joe Lieberman talking about how politics affects teens and why they must get involved. Go to 18in08.com to order a copy or arrange a screening in your area.
After realizing that most of the students at her Castle Rock, Colorado, high school weren't as interested in politics as she was, senior Sara Fitouri worked with school district officials to organize a voter registration drive during study hall. In one day, she helped register 200 17- and 18-year-olds. "A lot of students think their vote doesn't count," says Fitouri, who is 18. "But if I can get 200 other people to vote, that's powerful." Guidelines for voter registration drives vary by state, so your teen should consult with her Secretary of State's office for rules. An even easier way to get out the vote: direct of-age friends to VoteSmart.org, which compiles information on how to register in each state.
A trip to Washington, D.C., offers a perfect civics lesson for teens and tweens. Arrange a free guided tour of the U.S. Capitol by calling your representative or senator's office at least a month in advance. He or she can also arrange for White House tours, but tickets are scarce so call up to six months before your trip. If you miss out, drop by the new Madame Tussaud's wax museum in downtown D.C., where you can sit behind the desk in the city's only replica of the Oval Office and rub elbows with a lifelike Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton (go to MadameTussaudsDC.com for visitor information). If a Capitol trip isn't in the cards, tour your state capitol building instead. A front-seat look at where laws get made will make government more real for your kids.
Whether you serve on the library board or at a local soup kitchen, parents who volunteer are more likely to raise kids who do too. Besides feeling more empowered about their ability to solve problems in their community, young volunteers also vote at higher rates than non-volunteers. You can find great volunteer opportunities in your area at the Web site 1-800-Volunteer.org.
Activities that give teens a crack at running a pseudo-government, likeModel UN, are even more effective than student body leadership positions at priming future voters for active political participation. One prestigious program open to teens is Boys and Girls State (BoysAndGirlsState.org), sponsored by the American Legion. Participants attend week-long camps in their home state, where they campaign for offices and create local governments that they operate according to their state's real laws. Two elected "officials" from each state also attend the national version of the program in Washington, D.C.
Thirty-eight states have provisions that allow students as young as 15 to serve as poll workers on election day. In California, for instance, San Mateo County recruits 16- and 17-year-old poll workers through its Democracy Live program. Not only does participation earn each teen worker $125 and 20 hours of service-learning credit, but it demystifies the voting process for students who are on the cusp of voting themselves. Tara Galvez, a 17-year-old senior at Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, California, worked a 14-hour shift at a local polling place for a primary election. Despite the long hours, her work gave her a healthy respect for upcoming presidential elections.
"Politics is really about problem solving," says Sara Urquhart, of St. George, Utah, whose husband, Steve, is a state representative. At the dinner table, the Urquharts ask their four kids to suggest solutions to both small-scale challenges and big issues. The next time you're tempted to fight your children's battles, ask questions to help them solve their own dilemmas, like, "Is there any way to change this situation?"
Campaigning for freshman class president gives your teen a valuable taste of politics -- and if she wins, a shot at real leadership. But many communities welcome teen input beyond the schools. In Olathe, Kansas, for instance, the 25 members of the Teen Council work to tackle problems like adolescent obesity. In Seattle, students on the Mayor's Youth Council get an in-depth education in city operations. Search for a youth council in your town at the Web site of the National League of Cities (nlc.org), or call your city hall to ask about commissions that might welcome teen input.