Teenage Citizens

By Coonie Flanagan 

What do Anne Frank, Joan of Arc and King Tutankhamun have in common? They were all teens when they made their mark on society. Today that list might include Malala Yousafzai (Pakistani advocate for girl’s right to education), Katy Butler (US anti-bullying activist), Ryan Hreljac (US teen who started a foundation to build wells in Africa), or perhaps your teen.

Democratic societies need citizens like these teens who are democratically or civically oriented – citizens who are open-minded and tolerant, who are ready to pitch in, to work with others (even with whom they may disagree) in order to make their communities good places to live. Parents can play a major role in nurturing such traits in their children. But how do they do this?

For the past twenty-five years I have been seeking answers to this question by interviewing teenagers on a wide range of topics – such as What democracy means to them or Why we have laws or What they learned from doing volunteer work in their community. Through these conversations, I have learned three things that parents do that influence how their children think about such civic issues.

1. No matter what the topic, when parents discuss current events and listen to their child’s opinions, those teens will see different perspectives on social issues. For example, when talking about helmet laws for motorcyclists, teens might appreciate both the law’s impact on the individual’s freedom and the law’s goal of public safety. So what does that have to do with teen’s democratic dispositions? Well, people who learn to see issues from different perspectives tend to be more open-minded, tolerant, and less extreme in their positions. And that’s good for democracy.

2. Parents nurture the democratic dispositions of their children by supporting and encouraging their involvement in community and/or faith-based organizations where the youth can work with others in projects to benefit their community. When young people volunteer for community based groups, they get to know people whose lives differ from theirs; they get to know them as fellow citizens rather than as members of a group (e.g., the elderly, the homeless). To my surprise, one thing that teens told us they learned from doing community service was, “I got to know and to trust old people.” It never occurred to me that they wouldn’t trust the elderly, but when you think about it, many teens have very little contact with the older people so teens had stereotyped perceptions of the elderly as a ‘group.’ Only by getting to know individuals in such groups do we learn to trust them and see how their fates are intertwined with our own. Concerning such ‘interdependence of fates’, kids also learned about the mutual obligations that bind members of a community together. They said things like, “It is good to help others, because when you are in need they would be happy to help you”.

3. Perhaps the biggest impact that parents have on their children’s civic dispositions is through the values that they teach. Teens’ ideas about democracy are highly influenced by the values their parents emphasize. Through my conversations with youth, I have found that teens were more likely to mention themes of equal opportunity, social inclusion, and the rights of all people if their families emphasized social responsibility as a value to live by. Social responsibility was measured by items like, “My parents have taught me to be helpful to others, especially the less fortunate”. If teens did not hear that kind of value at home, they tended to think of democracy only in terms of individual, and typically their own, freedom.

However, democracy is not a system of free individuals, isolated from one another. Democracy is a system in which people decide together how they want to live. So whether young people are striving for major change like Malala, Katy or Ryan or simply working to maintain and improve upon their existing freedoms and communities, youth need to be nurtured and taught the necessary skills for civic engagement. Everyone’s future rests upon the next generation’s ability to realize and support democracy and parents play a major role in preparing the younger generation to achieve that lofty goal.

What volunteer activities does your teen and/or your family do in your community?

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