Western Pa. educators urge parents to teach children about politics

| Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, 9:57 a.m.

Jenyne Carter keeps her son, Rafael Jaramillo, 2, close by when she watches the president address the nation. She shows him pictures of people running for office. She talks to him about what a president does.

The Mt. Oliver mother is preparing her child to be knowledgeable about politics, something many parents might find themselves struggling with as another election approaches.

“It's very overwhelming,” said Carter, 31, also mother of Millie Jaramillo, three months, and a member of the South Hills Mom's Club. “It's a huge responsibility to know my son's education about these things comes from me.”

In the weeks leading up to the election, educators encourage parents to talk politics with their children, regardless of their age, to help them understand what the seemingly ubiquitous ads, events and conversations are all about.

“With an election coming up, you can't really avoid politics, and kids aren't immune to it,” said Nermeen El Nokali, clinical research coordinator at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh UPMC, who has a background in developmental psychology. “It's a really big topic, but it's never too early to talk about civic-mindedness.”

El Nokali encourages parents to use ads or debates to create “teachable moments” with children.

“You can have an open dialogue with kids about what it means to be a member of the community and who makes the rules,” she said.

She said when children are about 4 or 5, parents can talk about different political perspectives. As they grow older and gain a better understanding of civics, children can talk about which side they agree with and have “an open debate at home.”

El Nokali also suggests parents take children to the polls with them. She took her daughter, Noor, now 5, with her when she voted in the last presidential election.

“It instills in them the idea that this will be their right,” she said.

Whether they talk about it at home, many children learn the basics of politics in the classroom. Glenn Gougler, a history teacher at West Mifflin Middle School where students are participating in a mock election, said it's important parents don't shy away from the topic.

“Parents should take it upon themselves to educate themselves and look at the issues,” he said. “Online, there are resources for scholastic books that take the issues down to the kids' level.”

Eighth-graders at the middle school have created a campaign advisory team for each presidential candidate. All students in the school will vote Nov. 5. Students will then compare and analyze the results of the mock election with those of the actual election.

While team members are concerned with many issues, including gay marriage, abortion, health care and women's rights, most agree education and the economy are most important to them.

“We want to know we have someplace to go and someplace to work once we're done with high school,” said Brittany Horne, 13.

Last week, the students spent their lunch hour hanging posters around the school extolling their respective candidates. They will produce campaign commercials to run on the schoolwide television broadcast and visit classrooms boost support for their candidate.

“We try to bring up topics they're interested in,” said Breann Toth, 13. “A lot of kids are getting interested because of what the school is doing to hype it up.”

Teachers say at first, students' political stances often are based mostly on their parents' opinions.

“We try to show them what both sides have to offer,” said Raymond Rost, civics teacher at West Mifflin High School. “We teach them they should vote for who will represent you best when they have to make decisions. There's a lot of negative campaigning. You have to realize both sides do that, and you still have to find the person that will represent you best.”

Many schools across the region also are employing similar methods. Upper St. Clair middle school students will participate in a schoolwide mock election. Seventh- and eighth-grade students are studying the electoral college and the possible mathematical combinations needed to win for each candidate; candidates' speeches; and environmental issues.

Elementary teachers are focusing on how students would change the country or their community if they were president.

Pine-Richland Middle School students will use new study and note-taking methods to prepare and participate in a political debate. Teachers will then bring the students together to vote for the next president.

“Perhaps the greatest lesson learned about Election Day is that students need to have an open line of communication with their parents to talk about issues that matter,” said Anne Harris-Crowe, social studies teacher. “These students are the next generation of voters. Our country is in their hands.”

Carter said as her children grow, she plans to stress the importance of finding a candidate aligned with their personal values rather than relying on ads to guide their choices.

“The most important thing is to be consistent — constantly exposing them to it rather than when they turn 18 saying, ‘Here's your responsibility. Good luck,'” she said. “It's a lifelong thing, instead of just every four years.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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