How To Raise A Good Citizen : Life Kit Now is a good time to talk to the kids in your life about how to engage in civics. Here's a primer from our Life Kit parenting team.

Now Is A Good Time To Talk To Kids About Civics

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CORY TURNER, HOST:

Hi. I'm Cory Turner.

ANYA KAMENETZ, HOST:

I'm Anya Kamenetz. And this is NPR's LIFE KIT.

TURNER: In this episode, just one day before the big election, we're going to talk about civics and how to raise kids who are confident, active citizens.

KAMENETZ: And we're going to start with a story about a father and a founding father.

TURNER: The father is Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a history professor at The Ohio State University, who gave a TED Talk just before the pandemic back in February about a trip he took to James Madison's cellar.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: I feel these ridges in the brick, and it takes a second to realize what they are. What they are are tiny handprints because all of the bricks at James Madison's estate were made by the children that he enslaved.

TURNER: Hasan, who is Black, has three daughters. And his oldest, who's in fifth grade now, recently started learning civics in school - specifically about the Constitution.

JEFFRIES: I'm sitting back like, yeah, I've been waiting for this. Like, how is this going to go down?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JEFFRIES: Last night, she was like, Dad, you know, we were challenged to memorize the preamble. I'm like, OK, go ahead, memorize it. But we're going to have a conversation about its applicability afterwards. And it was so interesting because she started talking about the founders.

KAMENETZ: So Hasan's daughter had been in the audience at that TED Talk he did, but she hadn't quite put it together that that James Madison was the same James Madison who helped write this Constitution that she was learning about.

TURNER: Yeah, she didn't realize it, that is, until her historian dad pointed it out

JEFFRIES: And she had this look in her eye like her - over her face. And she was - she made the connection. Like, wait; that's the dude that you were talking about - right? - who was, you know, having children who he enslaved make bricks for his comfort and convenience. That's the dude they had me reading about? And I was like, yeah, it's the same one. And she was like, oh, that's a problem. Literally, she's like, that's a problem. I'm like, it is a problem. It sure is a problem.

KAMENETZ: And this is an example of what Hasan calls America's hard history. And he says grappling with it and helping our kids grapple with it is basically an act of patriotism.

TURNER: So in this episode, we're going to talk about civics and patriotism and how to help our kids through those oh moments.

KAMENETZ: So they can become confident, active, I might even say hopeful citizens of these not-so-united-feeling states.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Before we can talk about kids and civics, we need to define what is civics.

KAMENETZ: I mean, all I can think about is...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M JUST A BILL")

JACK SHELDON: (As the Bill, singing) I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill. And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill. Well, it's a long, long...

TURNER: I mean, sure, how a bill becomes a law, or doesn't, is totally civics, but it's also much bigger than that. It's about the point of government and the responsibilities that we all share as members of a healthy society. Dare I say, it's about teaching kids the importance of public service. You know, whether you're running for office, volunteering in a soup kitchen or just paying your taxes, it's all civics.

KAMENETZ: It totally is, and it's a lot. So let's start at the beginning. Every child needs a foundation of basic facts about history, geography, how government works or kind of works. And in our school system in the United States, this process has not been going so well.

ASHLEY BERNER: Many Americans don't know which - believe it or not - which century the Civil War occurred in.

TURNER: Ashley Berner is a professor at Johns Hopkins. She's also a parent. And she studies how schools teach about civics. And with her help, let's get right to our first takeaway.

KAMENETZ: To participate in civics, kids need to know stuff, so don't be afraid to help them memorize it.

TURNER: We're talking facts. And it's OK to memorize those facts because, as Ashley says...

BERNER: The more you know, the more you can know.

TURNER: See, researchers have found that knowledge is sticky. So the more you have, the easier it is to hold on to new information.

KAMENETZ: And one of the best ways to start building that foundation of sticky knowledge is to talk about it. Give them history, geography, dates.

TURNER: And that, in turn, will make it a lot easier for your kids to make sense of the world when it starts coming at them, you know, whether it's in person, on TV, on the Internet, in the news.

BERNER: You're reading an op-ed, and you can't go Google every word there.

KAMENETZ: Vocabulary as well as knowledge - these are the bedrocks of media literacy. If kids have a foundation of knowledge, it makes it a lot easier for them to evaluate the claims and arguments that may come their way in social media.

TURNER: And sort fact from all of the other flaming-hot garbage that's out there right now. Or, you know, maybe, as we heard earlier about Hasan's daughter and James Madison, you know, maybe your kids aren't getting the garbage, but maybe they're just getting one side of a story, one set of facts when it's just much more complicated than that.

KAMENETZ: So, you know, to supplement what our schools are teaching, Ashley says, don't just stop at the Founding Fathers.

BERNER: Do you understand where other countries are, what our history is, what alternative forms of government are possible and exist? A one-year civics class is important but insufficient. So I think of the political knowledge part as a K-12 experience. It is geography and history and economics.

KAMENETZ: Ashley says that research shows this foundation of civics knowledge can pay off in different kinds of surprising ways. So students that have more time with social studies, it turns out these kids actually do better in other subjects, too. And this advantage particularly holds true for kids from low-income families.

So how do we actually do it, Cory? What can we as parents and caregivers do to help our kids build this content knowledge and, you know, make their brains stickier in a good way?

TURNER: Well, the key that we heard from everyone we spoke with is keep it fun. Like, you're not drilling kids. So a perfect example comes to mind for me. When my oldest son was 2 years old, he loved this colorful place mat that we had bought him of the United States, and it had all its capitals. And at meals, just because he had fun doing it, he'd point to a place, and we'd tell him who we knew who lived there. And after doing that for a long time, he knows his capitals better than I do now.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. You know, when you make it fun, you'd be amazed what kids can remember, Ashley says.

BERNER: The other thing we recommend for littler children is to get a globe. And you can use it as a jumping-off tool for all kinds of conversations. You could have, you know, a dinner and have your children help prepare the dinner from Japan or from Uruguay or Argentina and find out about the country.

TURNER: My favorite suggestion from Ashley to help build your kid's civic brain is to get outside.

BERNER: Start by walking around your neighborhood, and talk about what institutions are public and what are private. So which things have we decided as a community that we're going to support, like road building or parks or libraries?

KAMENETZ: You know, I like this as a pandemic activity. It seems really achievable. Just walk around your neighborhood.

TURNER: Absolutely. All right, we're going to jump now to our next takeaway, takeaway No. 2. It's important to talk about and acknowledge what Hasan calls our hard history.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, not just important - Hasan says it's patriotic.

JEFFRIES: I think the highest form of patriotism is sort of self-reflection and saying, hey, this is what we've done wrong - right? - and being critical in order to move forward 'cause I don't think you're able to move forward, I don't think you're able to advance if you're just pretending about things that are either existing now or existed in the past.

KAMENETZ: Cory, this reminds me of my favorite Frederick Douglass quote. He is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.

TURNER: That is great.

KAMENETZ: And, Cory, you've done some reporting about this point, right?

TURNER: Yeah. President Trump not that long ago called for patriotic education, basically giving students a version of U.S. history that glosses over the really terrible stuff like slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. And his argument - and it's not just President Trump making this argument, but his point was when you take the time to grapple with our hard history, some folks are worried that you are basically indoctrinating kids to hate America. Now, the irony here, Anya, is I've done some reporting on what is actually being taught in schools. And there are lots of places across the country that are still basically giving kids this pretty whitewashed version of American history.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, this point came up when we talked to a teenager, Taylor Pittman.

TAYLOR PITTMAN: Hey. I'm Taylor. I'm 17 years old.

TURNER: Taylor's an adviser in a program called Cultures of Dignity, which is dedicated to what they call civil dialogue among young people, families and educators. So we checked in with Taylor and some of her fellow advisers throughout this episode.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, so Taylor happens to be a high school senior in New Orleans, La., which is also my hometown. And she told us about the field trips that she took as a child to, you know, former slave plantations - right? - forced labor camps for the growing of sugar and cotton. And I was really amazed because I had visited these same places as a schoolchild in Louisiana. And I couldn't believe that not only are these field trips still going on, but they're still giving kids the "Gone With The Wind" version. She said the tour guide wanted to talk about...

PITTMAN: The agriculture, and it's so pretty. And look at the nature. And I'm just like, we're at the slave houses. Usually, they're, like, tucked off away in the back. I'm like, can we go in there? They're like, no, let's just focus on the beautiful oak trees.

TURNER: But not only did Taylor know better, so did her teacher, who was also a Black woman.

PITTMAN: And then when we got back on the bus, my teacher was like, the oak trees are what they used to hang people. They used to have beatings there. And we talked about how everything that they said at that plantation was wrong.

KAMENETZ: So there's many individual teachers like Taylor's, as well as groups like Teaching Tolerance and Black Lives Matter at School, who are working really hard to give a clearer-eyed version to our kids of, you know, what exactly went on from 1619 all the way to now.

TURNER: Yeah. Hasan says the point here is to not focus solely on the hard stuff but to strike a delicate balance, like the way he talks with his daughters.

JEFFRIES: I couldn't just talk about the hardships. Like, race couldn't always be a police killing. Race couldn't always be discrimination and injustice or slavery and Jim Crow. We're going to talk about that. But if we only talk about that, then she was like, I don't want to deal with it. Like, why do I have to be that, right? And so I had to begin to consciously say, you got to balance the good with the bad or the bad with the good. You got to balance the pain with the joy - right? - the hardship with the love.

TURNER: And this echoes something that Taylor told us, too. After Breonna Taylor, the young Black woman who was shot to death by police in her apartment in Louisville, Ky., Taylor Pittman told us she nearly lost hope. Instead, though, she has been focusing on what she can change, and she's gotten involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. And that's really keeping her motivated.

KAMENETZ: You know, these days, Cory, I talk to so many people who feel really fed up with the news, with what's going on in the country, and yet they're still taking these essentially hopeful actions - right? - registering voters, protesting, helping out in their community. And, you know, all of that really falls under the heading of civics.

TURNER: Absolutely. And it also perfectly sets up our takeaway No. 3, which is we have to put civics into practice.

KAMENETZ: Right. So Ashley points out that historically, civics education has been way more than a collection of facts about geography or history.

TURNER: It's been preparation for participating in democracy. And in fact, Ashley says, that preparation, historically, was one of the big reasons we have a public school system.

BERNER: So we know that civic formation is the prime reason why modern democracies started funding education in the first place - was to raise able citizens.

KAMENETZ: Basically, according to this view, classrooms actually are supposed to be like a little laboratory, a place where students practice having reasonable, evidence-based discussions. And that, in theory, is going to prepare them for how to act as members of the society - right? - maybe one day at a school board meeting or if you get called up for jury duty.

TURNER: And we, as parents, can also model citizenship at home or in the community, you know, through actions like community service, voter registration and volunteering in all sorts of ways and places.

KAMENETZ: For example, in pre-COVID times, Hasan said his daughters remember that he took all three of them with him to vote.

JEFFRIES: In 2016, we were right there. It was me and all three of them. The youngest one, I had her in my carrier, and I had my other two right there. And I was like, we're going to vote, and you're going to watch Daddy, you know, cast this ballot.

TURNER: And Hasan says his middle daughter seems to have really picked up on the importance of voting. So just the other day...

JEFFRIES: She was like, what's our voting plan? And I was like, what? Like, what are you talking about, right? She was like, what's our voting plan? So she's not fully clear, but she knows enough that there needs to be a plan.

TURNER: And something similar also came up with another teen we spoke with for this episode. His name is Jake Chang (ph). He's 16. He's a junior in high school. And his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Korea when Jake was 2 years old. So he says they just this past year got their citizenship, and they're able to vote for the first time.

JAKE CHANG: We finally got, like, the ballots and, like, the voter booklets. And then I would just, like, flip through it and see, like, their candidates. And this year is a really important time to choose who we want to lead our country. And I'm hoping that I can get my citizenship in the future and then finally vote.

KAMENETZ: That's pretty inspiring to think about looking forward to your first vote, right? And Ashley Berner says even if you don't have the excitement of a new citizen in your family, there are so many ways to help your kids experience what democracy looks like, the nuts and bolts.

BERNER: Children can get involved in political campaigns. You can volunteer with a candidate. I used to - (laughter) shows you how old I am - I used to help my parents lick envelopes to raise money for political candidates and mail them.

TURNER: Hasan says for his family, service is a way of life.

JEFFRIES: We're both the children of social workers. That part of civics, part of, you know, being a part of this community, society is service, right? Like, you have to serve other people.

KAMENETZ: You know, I'm feeling a little bit more hopeful about the state of the world than I did when we started recording this, Cory. I don't know what it is, but I guess it's just from talking to, you know, fellow Americans, especially young people who are working so hard to make a positive contribution and make sense of everything that's going on.

TURNER: Good. Oh, I'm just feeling so much more cynical about all of this.

KAMENETZ: Maybe there's a balance of hope in the universe...

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: ...And I got more and you just got less.

TURNER: Maybe I'm just worried because we've saved our toughest takeaway for last. All right, so here it goes. In this moment when politics feels more personal than ever, you know, when everyone and everything seems so polarized, we really need takeaway No. 4, which is we've got to teach kids the fine art of tolerant disagreement.

SARA DAVIS: I sort of had a reputation at my middle school and early high school careers of getting really passionate about something and just yelling at people.

KAMENETZ: So Sara Davis is 18 and a high school senior in Colorado. Sara, I've been there. She's another one of our Culture of Dignity youth advisers. And Sara tells us she started working on being more tolerant in her conversations when she started debating with a good friend of hers who had really different political beliefs. But she says...

DAVIS: I really didn't get good at it until I started in Model U.N. And it's easier for me to see, like, where they're - that is coming from. So I can still understand, like, OK, this is genuinely coming from a bad place, or this is coming from a good place, but they don't have all the facts.

KAMENETZ: So in activities like Model U.N., it's kind of a structured forum for disagreement. And you're practicing evaluating evidence and claims and also bias. And you're practicing perspective taking - you know, thinking about where people are coming from, just like Sara says.

And Ashley says that school, as well as extracurriculars like Model U.N. and debate, they have a really important role to play in helping young people learn how to compare different points of view without getting overly heated or personal, which is something that's so rare in our society right now.

BERNER: This is called the open classroom climate, and it has an outsized effect on long-term civic behaviors.

TURNER: Yeah, how do we teach the art of tolerant...

BERNER: (Laughter).

TURNER: ...Disagreement? I mean, I feel like now more than any other time in my lifetime at least, we live in a moment where every side feels passionately that they are right.

BERNER: It - well, it's always been difficult. And it's even more difficult when we have media that helps create these separate poles and in which we're all siloed in our own worldview without touching others. And this is, again, why it's so important for young people to be engaged in conversations about meaning and purpose and different political viewpoints.

KAMENETZ: Ashley says that here's where the United States stands out not in a good way. Most of our peer nations have made it a priority to explicitly teach children about the way that different groups in society actually see the world differently. But even though we live in such a diverse country, we don't always formally expose our kids to different viewpoints. I mean, Sara's experience is an exception here.

TURNER: Yeah, and a lot of the time, that's because we parents, we get bent out of shape when it comes to our kids being exposed to different points of view in school. We complain to teachers. We complain to school leaders...

KAMENETZ: About stuff like yoga in gym class or even being assigned certain books to read. And Ashley says that she'd like to see school leaders talk to parents and say...

BERNER: Listen; exposure to different beliefs is not indoctrination.

TURNER: It's how we build empathy and tolerance. And it turns out, in this way, Anya, civics - I'm going to go out on a limb here - is a lot like sex.

KAMENETZ: I'm not going to contradict you right out, but I was in all these same interviews, Cory, and no one mentioned sex.

TURNER: Well, not the interviews we've been doing in the last couple of weeks, but remember we did our episode on why it's important to talk about sex with your kids?

KAMENETZ: Oh, yeah, because of what happens when you don't talk about it, right?

TURNER: Exactly. It's the same with civics.

BERNER: If you avoid conversations about how people believe or what disagreements we have, you're actually teaching kids that either those questions aren't important or they're not appropriate for public discourse.

JEFFRIES: And my 5-year-old will say, that don't make no sense, right? Like, but we're afraid. We're afraid to talk about politics. We're afraid about indoctrination and hurt feel - like, in the classroom. Like, no, no, no. You got to let people know you stand, right? Provide children evidence, provide them with stories - right? - and then we can go from there.

TURNER: And Ashley says parents should encourage and even model this kind of open debate at home, too.

BERNER: Bring in someone - a relative, a friend - who disagrees with the parents and the family on politics and really have a coherent debate.

KAMENETZ: I have to admit, Cory, that in November 2020, that sounds pretty terrifying.

TURNER: Yeah. You think?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. I might start with something a little simpler, like cats versus dogs.

TURNER: Oh, but that - that's so obvious. It's cats. Cats are awesome.

KAMENETZ: I happen to agree with you, Cory, because of my worldview and my life experience. But I think we have to hold in our heads the possibility that there are some people out there who genuinely like dogs. And they're not bad people.

TURNER: But wait; if I do this, am I betraying all cats or myself?

KAMENETZ: (Laughter).

TURNER: You trying to indoctrinate me, Anya?

KAMENETZ: No. No, no, no, no. I'm just asking you to be, you know, a little bit open-minded in the spirit of tolerant disagreement.

TURNER: All right, in the spirit of civics and tolerant disagreement, I will agree.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: And on that high note, Anya, I think it's time for our recap. Takeaway No. 1 - to participate in civics, kids need to know stuff.

KAMENETZ: Yes, as in facts - facts about not just their government and how it works, but the rest of the world, too - geography, the where, history, the when.

TURNER: Yeah. And don't be afraid to help them memorize important places or people by playing memory games with homemade flash cards, place mats, spinning a globe.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, knowledge is sticky. The more you know, the more you can know.

TURNER: And speaking of facts, takeaway No. 2 is that we shouldn't skip over what Hasan Jeffries calls our hard history.

KAMENETZ: Absolutely, but we also shouldn't forget to show kids the genius, the beautiful, courageous struggles of so many Americans.

TURNER: And one thing that helps build kids' sense of belonging as Americans is our takeaway No. 3 - help them put civics into action. Whether you're collecting cans for fall food drives, going to a safely masked protest or writing letters to elected officials, kids need that nudge to see you being an active citizen.

KAMENETZ: And our final takeaway, No. 4 - teach kids the fine art of tolerant disagreement. Model healthy debate for your kids. Take issues out of the news and help them see different perspectives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: For more NPR LIFT KIT, check out our other episodes, including our two-parter on how to talk about sex with kids.

KAMENETZ: You can find all of those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.

TURNER: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at lifekit@npr.org.

KAMENETZ: This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Special thanks to Ashley Berner, Hasan Jeffries and Sara Davis, Jake Chang, Taylor Pittman, Gus Kraft and Rosalind Wiseman of Cultures of Dignity.

TURNER: Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare - our former superstar intern - Lombardo. And our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider.

I'm Cory Turner.

KAMENETZ: And I'm Anya Kamenetz. Thanks for listening.

TURNER: Thank you. Go vote.

Hold on. Hey, guys. Guys, I'm recording.

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