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Teaching Children Democratic Citizenship


"We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society" (The Family: A Proclamation to the World, ¶ 9)

What Is Democratic Citizenship?

Citizenship is simply legal status in a country, but democratic citizenship involves much more. It demands becoming informed about issues that affect you and participating with others in determining how society will resolve those issues (Portelli & Solomon, 2001, p. 12).

Many countries throughout history have been governed by elite men and women who make laws and legal judgments with little input from their citizens. The founders of democratic nations, however, believed in creating a government where the "common man" could have a voice in politics. For such an approach to work, citizens must become aware, knowledgeable, and active in their communities and nations. True democratic citizenship requires more than voting for representatives. It requires using one's own mind, voice, and actions.

Why Is Exercising Democratic Citizenship Important?

No one is born into the world with rights. Societies decide what rights it will give citizens and what powers it will give government. Rights can be taken away and governmental powers can grow beyond reasonable limits unless citizens are watchful. The core of democracy "assumes that our rights and liberties do not come for free, that unless we assume the responsibilities of citizens we will not be able to preserve them" (Barber, 1998, p. 195).

Why Is Teaching Children About Democratic Citizenship Important?

Democracies are built on the belief that people should be free, should have choices and opportunities, and should work together to make each other's lives better. If we want to maintain our democratic society, we must teach our children to be good citizens – which goes beyond teaching them to obey the laws of the land. We must also teach them about how their freedoms began and how they're maintained. We must teach them that they can make a difference and that if they don't become involved democratic citizens, they risk losing their free way of life.

A Parent's Example

Parents are crucial in helping children understand democratic citizenship. See article Parents as the First and Foremost Teachers . Tim Graves (2002), an educator and father, offers three ideas for showing your children by your example and actions that democratic citizenship matters:

  • Behave democratically with your children. Democracies need citizens who know how to share power and control. Give children experiences that allow them to decide what they learn and do. With these experiences, they can learn how to use power benevolently.
  • Practice respect. Without the principle of respect, democracy cannot exist. When parents show respect to their children, children learn the value of respect in sustaining democratic ideals.
  • Don't minimize your power to make a difference. No single person can change the world, but you can do what's possible within your sphere of influence. As a parent, that sphere begins with your children. Educator Jesse Goodman (1989) said, "The key to transforming society lies in transforming the consciousness of its citizens, especially children" (p. 107).

Activities to Build Democratic Citizenship

Below are activities that can help you teach your children democratic citizenship.

  • Take your children with you when you vote. 
  • Involve your children in family decisions.
  • Read the newspaper with your children and discuss articles about local issues, especially those that affect children.
  • Attend a school board meeting together.
  • Participate in community service together.
  • Read biographies of people who are good examples of democratic citizens.

Suggested books for younger children:

  • A Boy Called Slow, by J. Bruchac (1994). New York: Philomel Books.
  • The Story of Ruby Bridges, by R. Coles (1995). New York: Scholastic.
  • Eleanor, by B. Cooney, B. (1996). New York: Viking.
  • Peaceful Protest: The Life of Nelson Mandela, by Y.Z. McDonough (2002). New York: Walker and Company.
  • Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale, by J. Steptoe (1987). New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books.

Suggested books for older children:

  • Through My Eyes, by R. Bridges (1999). New York: Scholastic.
  • Cesar Chavez, by B. W. Concord (1992). Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers.
  • Marie Curie, by L. E. Fisher (1994). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
  • You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? By J. Fritz (1995). New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
  • A Ripple of Hope: The Life of Robert F. Kennedy, by B. Harrison & D. Terris (1997). New York: Lodestar Books.
  • Helen Keller: Out of a Dark and Silent World, by S. H. Shictman (2002). Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press, Inc.

Below are additional resources for finding activities that teach democratic citizenship.

Questions to Guiding You in Teaching Your Children

As you choose activities, the questions below can help you discern what your children need to learn. 

  • Are my children learning the democratic values of public good, mutual care, tolerance, social justice, political agency, and moral leadership?
  • Are my children learning respect for human rights, open-mindedness, responsibility, and cooperativeness?
  • Do my children know about problems in our community and nation?
  • Are my children hearing all sides of an issue, not just the obvious pros or cons?
  • Do my children possess thinking skills such as "critical reasoning, problem solving, decision making, perspective-taking, divergent thinking – constructing hypotheses, and evaluating evidence" (Cotton, 1996, p. 8)?
  • Do my children believe that by being active in our democracy they can make a difference?

Ineffective Teaching

Researcher Kathleen Cotton (1996) reviewed many studies about teaching children democratic citizenship, and she found several factors that scholars say contribute to ineffective teaching:

  • Lack of meaning. Children were given isolated facts and weren't taught how to apply them to real-life situations.
  • Lack of focus on rights. Children were not taught about individual freedoms granted in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech.
  • Passive learning. Children were lectured to or read to from a book instead of being trained in thinking for themselves and developing their own skills.
  • Avoidance of controversial topics. Topics that would naturally pique a child's interest were avoided, denying children the opportunity to think critically and make up their own minds when presented with contradictory evidence.

Issues facing entire communities and nations too often are decided with little input from citizens. Teaching children responsible citizenship by example and precept is an important responsibility of parenthood.

Written by Sarah A. Smith, Research Assistant, edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References

Barber, B. R. (1998). A passion for democracy: American essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Chilcoat, G. W. & Ligon, J. A. (2002). "It is democratic citizens we are after:" The curriculum orientation of Shirley H. Engle's approach to social studies education. Submitted to the International Journal of Social Education, February, 2002.

Cotton, K. (1996). Educating for citizenship. School Improvement Research Series. Retrieved December 19, 2003, from http://www.nwrel.org/scpd/sirs/10/c019.html

Goodman, J. (1989). Education for critical democracy. Journal of Education, 171, 2, 88-116.

Graves, T. (2002). Building democracy in our schools and families. Retrieved December 11, 2003, from http://www.trainingwheels4ece.com/talk/building_democracy.htm

Kohl, H. (1980). Can the schools build a new social order? Journal of Education, 162, 3, 57-66. Boston University.

Moyer, B. (2001). Doing democracy: The MAP model for organizing social movements. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Portelli, J.P. & Solomon R.P., (Eds.). (2001). The erosion of democracy in education. Calgary, AB: Detselig Enterprises Ltd.

Smith, W.J., Butler-Kisber, L., LaRocque, L.J., Portelli, J.P., Shields, C.M., Sturge Sparks, C. & Vibert, A.B. (1998). Student engagement in learning and school life: National project report. Montreal, QC: Office of Research on Educational Policy, McGill University.