How to Hook Kids into Civic Engagement

by Suzita Cochran   |   October 19, 2016

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One fall day a few years back, my kids had a memorable experience at our local playground. They met our mayor. Quite a thrilling event in their young lives, yielding much excited conversation as they ran home to tell my husband.

“She was really friendly, but she didn’t look like a mayor,” Daniel (age nine) informed his dad. Annie (age six) was so proud she could hardly speak. It came out later that she assumed our mayor worked daily with Barack Obama.

It wasn’t entirely random that the kids met their mayor that day, because it was actually the ribbon-cutting ceremony for our new neighborhood park. We’d taken a long and circuitous path to this point.

A year and a half prior, enough neighbors had sent enough email and made enough phone calls to our Parks Department that a critical mass was finally reached. The Parks Department decided to renovate our broken-down playground. It was the only one around that still had a 1960s-era, metal, spinning merry-go-round. Remember those? It looked like a huge lazy susan that little kids clung to as big kids spun it faster and faster. Our park also had one of those tall metal slides that burned kids’ bottoms on sweltering summer days. We’d been warned by the Parks Department: “We’re not fixing the merry-go-round. When it breaks, it goes.” It was already warped on one paint-chipped side.

Part of me knew that merry-go-round was dangerous. I recalled stories from my childhood of kids flying off the edge at top speed or getting their heads stuck between the metal disk and the ground. But my kids LOVED it! Over all the hours they spent on that structure, we only had one bad experience—the time my older son Stephen, who’d been lying on his six year-old tummy watching the ground blur by, suddenly flew off the side like a lawn dart. Luckily he landed in some actual lawn.

Then one day the merry-go-round had vanished, leaving nothing but a small hole in the playground sand. Most likely it broke in some minor way, and, under cover of darkness, the Parks Department hauled it away.

Now at last we were getting a new playground! Fliers were pinned everywhere inviting neighbors to a community meeting to discuss their desires for the new park. My boys had definite ideas, and I brought them along to the meeting.

"As the meeting was coming to a close, I noticed Daniel raising his thin arm as high as he could. I had no idea what he planned to say."

The Community Meeting

The meeting room was full of adults seated in fold-out chairs facing our Parks Department moderator. As these neighborhood meetings are wont to be, this one was fairly intense. People had distinct visions of what they did and didn’t want.

My sons asked me to voice their top choice for the park, an eight-foot basketball hoop on a half court. After I stated their request, a number of neighbors became quite concerned about the noise this would generate and the folks who might gather playing basketball at all hours. Stephen and Daniel’s eyes were wide as they listened to the impassioned discussion.

In the end, the basketball hoop was voted down. Second-grader Daniel had tears in his eyes, and his fourth-grade brother looked like he was replaying the conversation repeatedly in his head. The community group moved on to other park-related topics.

A Tire Swing

As the meeting was coming to a close, I noticed Daniel raising his thin arm as high as he could. I had no idea what he planned to say. When the moderator called on him the room became quiet. Daniel said in a determined voice: “I’d like to recommend a tire swing. I’ve noticed at other parks every age kid plays on them. And plus they’re really fun.” Every one smiled and nodded in agreement.

We couldn’t attend the next community playground meeting and, therefore, didn’t know what came of Daniel’s tire swing suggestion. But about a year later, when workers were installing the actual playground equipment, Daniel came running home to tell us there was a tire swing at our playground!

The day he met our mayor, Daniel walked her to the tire swing and retold this story. For adults, this would of course be a rather small victory. For Daniel, though, it made a big impression. He had proposed a good idea, and grown-ups had listened.

Beyond Local Government

I used this community meeting experience to talk to my kids about how our government makes decisions. The next time I was writing our congressional representatives, I showed the letter to the kids. After describing the issue I was supporting, I asked if they wanted to add something. It happened to be a topic they also felt strongly about, and they wrote their comments as neatly as they could at the bottom.

The next January, my husband and I helped our three kids generate a variety of New Year’s resolutions. Stephen, then age 12, decided he wanted to write our congressional reps about a climate change topic, but he wasn’t sure which one. Not long after making his resolution, Stephen came home from school regaling me with news of an Amtrak train in the Texas region that is partially fueled by beef fat. After telling him that I thought this was an urban legend swirling around his middle school, we googled it. Sure enough, it was true.

The Beet Train

Stephen decided to write our congressman, senators, and governor to suggest that our state of Colorado should have one of these trains. Only ours shouldn’t be fueled by beef, but by locally grown sugar beets. He suggested they call it the Beet Train. Although you may be aware that the Rocky Mountain region has yet to establish a train run by sugar beets, about a month after writing his letter, Stephen received a personally signed response from our governor.

Stephen was as proud showing us this letter as Daniel had been telling us about the tire swing at the neighborhood park. Sensing their excitement and feelings of self-efficacy recharged my motivation to nurture my children’s civic engagement. I was also reminded that the best place to start is on a topic about which my children were already passionate. Our upcoming election has posed a number of opportunities already.

Suzita Cochran is a child and family psychologist and mom of two boys and a girl who lives in Boulder, Colorado. At her parenting blog Play. Fight. Repeat. she writes on topics such as helping kids "stop at enough" in today's overflowing-with-items-and-options world.  Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.