A Good Citizen
Every child's first community is home. What children see and hear greatly influences how they interact with one another in the broader communities of neighborhood, school, country and ultimately the world.
We often equate citizenship with voting and civil rights, but citizenship extends beyond these rights to something much more. The act of thinking outside of oneself is one of the primary motivators for encouraging citizenship, both for our children as well as us. "Our children participated in an arboretum type event not that long ago," says Robert Billingham, professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. "They also help out with the food drive. Schools can be a wonderful place for focusing their involvement in projects."
What is Citizenship?
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines citizenship as "the status of being a citizen as well a membership in a community (such as a college) and the quality of the an individual's response to membership in a community." Our communities come in many shapes and sizes, as does our involvement with them.
"We have to teach children to think beyond themselves," says Billingham. "A great practice is for a parent to regularly volunteer their time so they can demonstrate through action helping the less fortunate, participating in local projects. It can have a profound effect on children to see their parents involvement, and it makes it more personal."
As parents, one of our goals is to encourage our children to better themselves, become more independent and to succeed at what drives them. Ultimately, we want them to be happy, but compassion should always play a role in that. Citizenship teaches compassion not only for other people, but also for animals and the environment. The world outside the front door is a large one, but we should always start small with the porch or the front yard. Just as you pick up the small pieces of litter before you mow the lawn, you also want to make sure your children don't tackle something beyond their comprehension.
"One of the real tragedies is that radical or hate groups indoctrinate their children very early in life because they can see their parents' passion and involvement with the causes they champion," says Billingham. "If we can have parents devote that kind of devotion to more positive aims, it will have the same effect."
How Can You Help?
Between work, carpools, schooling, after-school activities and housework, how can we as parents teach these broad-based ideas to our children? Exactly how we would any other project we want to tackle. Again, we start small. We encourage our children to write letters to Santa Claus in the winter, so why not ask if they want to write a letter to one of the soldiers around the world who is far from home and might be lonely?
"It reminds children of how big the world is," says Billingham. "You don't have to overwhelm them with why the soldiers are there, but [compassion] for these strangers who are far away is a simple, easy method to help them think beyond themselves."
Parks and recreation programs often offer programs where you can help volunteer. Girl Scouts of America along with Boy Scouts of America and numerous other such programs exist to help promote volunteerism and understanding. "But you can also do something as simple as take your kids to a zoo and show them the animals," says Billingham. "Read to them about where the animals come from, what the conditions are like and share this information. It's even better if you have access to a zoo with displays like maps and globes to help children envision the world better."
The Basic Idea
"Our children ask lots of questions [about politics], because that's what children do," says Billingham. "It's natural for us to want to impress on them our personal beliefs and bias, but it's important that we try to talk to them about everything – from the process to the candidates – and as they are older, to help them understand through critical thinking what the promises and the debates mean. I'm a great believer in the value of being a citizen from jury duty to voting, supporting those ideas and exercising it where your kids can see you and experience it is a great example."
There are numerous ways we can show our children how to be better people and better citizens while still encouraging them to grow and to learn and to question. Leading by example is the first step; the rest is to keep the doors of communication and options open. As we teach them about having responsibility beyond themselves, we teach them compassion, and through compassion, we are encouraging them to be better citizens.
We get out of this world what we offer to it – first through ourselves and then through how we touch the lives of others. Citizenship is a great gift to give to our children, but it's a gift that they can contribute to as well.