Two-thousand years ago, the Talmud quoted Rabbi Isaac as saying, "We must not appoint a leader over a community without first consulting it" (Berakhot 55a:11). Then as now, Jewish values of free will, equality, and the power of human action inform our collective sense of responsibility to choose our leaders. These same values are vital elements in young children's lives. Young children thrive in affirming environments that honor their autonomy and identity and promote their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. As Sasha Kopp, education consultant, wrote in a Jewish Education Project article in 2020, "Good Jewish early childhood education reflects good democratic education, which reflects the basic building blocks of a good democracy."
While often disregarded as unaware, young children interact daily with social and political messaging. With the approach of the midterm election season, with its lawn signs and commercials, children are encountering a barrage of images, information, and diverse perspectives. They may have questions, thoughts, and feelings about what is happening.
Here are some strategies to support our community's youngest future voters as they develop a deeper understanding of democracy.
- Engage in discussion. While young children are active participants in their world, do not make assumptions about their knowledge of the voting process. Use open-ended questions to ascertain what they already know, think, and feel about voting. Share about your own voting experiences. Sometimes, conversations with young children are brief, interrupted, or change direction, and that's okay. Follow the children's lead and check-in at a later time.
- Allow children to consider real issues. Conversations about voting as an empowering process in and of itself are important, but we also cannot shy away from addressing the issues. Misinformation surrounds children and may cloud children's concept development. Provide children information about candidates and topics such as civil rights, the environment, education, the economy, or healthcare. Affirm children's thoughts by providing them a safe space to contribute, yet potentially challenge, their ideas.
- Encourage respectful dialogue. Just like adults, young children have disagreements. This is part of the human experience. We do not want to teach children to avoid conflict--that is not realistic. Ask children how they solve arguments with their classmates and friends. Model ways to disagree with people's ideas without hurting their feelings. Demonstrate how through respectful dialogue, we can connect with those who share our objectives while also making space for other perspectives. With an open mind, we can show them--and we might even modify our own understanding of an issue.
- Incorporate voting at home. Voting can be incorporated into everyday experiences with family and friends, such as voting on a game to play, a snack to eat, or a song to sing. Follow through with the results--avoid, for instance, voting on activities that are less flexible, such as bedtime or getting a pet--and support children through the aftermath.
- Take children with you to vote. Pandemic restrictions in 2020 precluded taking children to the polls and many voters voted by mail. Perhaps now is an appropriate time to bring children to vote and allow them to experience voting in action. Consider the individual child's interests and capacities when deciding if this will work for you and your family.
- Utilize books. Books not only support pre-literacy development and relationship building, but are tools for posing questions, exchanging ideas, and reflecting on our own experiences. Through reading books, you can inform children of the voting process and encourage discussion about the history of voting and upholding everyone's right to vote.
~Vote for our Future!
by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by Micah Player
~I Voted: Making a Choice Makes a Difference
, by Mark Shulman, illustrated by Serge Bloch
~Equality's Call: The Story of Voting Rights in America
, by Deborah Diesen, illustrated by Magdalena Mora
Ilana Dvorin Friedman, Ph.D., is JUF's Early Childhood Policy Analyst.