If children are to grow up to become active citizens, we need to educate them about democracy from a young age

The idea of politicising children can be controversial, but author Ellie Levenson – who’s written a picture book about voting – argues that it’s never too early to show our kids how they can make an impact. 

One of my favourite pictures of my children is the two of them, aged one and a half and three and a half, taken last year, holding up our polling cards outside a polling station sign. My husband and I had taken them with us when we cast our votes in the local and European elections. We explained what we were doing and how it worked, and also why we were voting the way we were. Although we cared deeply about the results – we met through our involvement in politics – the third of these was the least important, really. We mostly wanted our children to understand what democracy means, what a vote is and why exercising it is important. We wanted to completely normalise political participation so that our children do not grow up as non-voters.

People are still a bit squeamish about the idea of ‘politicising’ children. It tends to conjure up images of little girls and boys brandishing placards, like those outside the Westboro Baptist Church, used as pawns to serve their parents’ political agenda. I believe, though, that it’s vitally important for us to introduce children to politics early, and that they’re never too young to start.

After all, from the moment our children are conceived their lives are influenced by politics. In the womb and during labour, every time I saw a midwife, and now, every time my children have an appointment with a doctor or receive a free prescription – they were and are benefiting from political decisions. They have had nursery provision paid for first by childcare vouchers we saved and then by the government’s free provision, they’ve been to free sessions at children’s centres and now, as they approach school age, we are applying for six local state primaries varying from ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement.’ Their lives are political every day, and that’s before we even start thinking about the food they eat, the house they live in and the passports they own.

We need to show children, from very early on, that politics isn’t just something ‘other people do’ – it’s our lives.

Our oldest is now four, and this stuff doesn’t go over her head. We bought a house this year (another deeply political subject) and many of the homes we looked around were Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs), with more than one family living there and sharing the kitchen and bathroom. The landlords were taking advantage of high property prices to cash in their assets. Many of these houses had whole families living in each room. “Why does that girl share a room with her mummy and daddy and why are all her clothes in a suitcase?” my daughter asked us when we left one such house. We explained, using language as age-appropriate as possible, that some people have more than others and the reasons behind this, and also why we believe there should be a more equitable distribution of resources and wealth.

I spent hours on the Baby Name talk boards when I was pregnant and – still do in fact – and as fellow lurkers and posters will know, nearly everyone wants a name fit for plumbers and Prime Ministers. Our interpretation of what that name is differs, but it suggests that we all want our children to feel able to become either, or both. Contrary to the popular belief that politicians and the rest of us are locked in an ‘us versus them’ battle, that we’re a different breed, I think it’s incredibly important for children to realise that politicians should represent us, in both senses of the word – they should look like the society they work on behalf of, and come from all classes, races, sexualities, genders and ages. We need to show children, from very early on, that politics isn’t just something ‘other people do’ – it’s our lives.

In a bid to try and do this, I’ve written a picture book called The Election, for children aged around 3-7. It tells the story of two children whose families are actively campaigning for two opposing political parties. Alex’s parents support the party with stripes on its posters. Evie’s parents support the party with spots on its posters. But only one of these can win. It’s democracy in picture book form, as it should be in a free and tolerant society. Sure, the losing parents are annoyed. But they are also pleased to live in a system in which everyone gets a vote, and Evie and Alex remain good friends.

Most of all I hope that the children reading it enjoy the story and the illustrations, but if they also grow up thinking that voting and participation is something everyone does, and something they will do, then I’d be beyond thrilled, whichever way they vote.

Find out more about Ellie’s book here. 

Note: This post originally appeared on MumsNet and is reposted with permission. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit UK or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Picture of Ellie LevensonEllie Levenson is a freelance journalist writing comment and features for several publications with the intention of making politics and political issues accessible to a wider audience. She is a former editor of Fabian Review and an editor of Fabian Thinkers: 120 Years of Progressive Thought. Her latest book is ‘The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism.’ She is all the author of the children’s book ‘The Election’.

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