Adolescents' Civic Engagement: Concordant and Longitudinal Associations Among Civic Beliefs and Civic Involvement

We’re doing our best to avoid all things election, so for our second #MustReadMonday we’re focusing on the silver linings of politics: youth and civic engagement.

We’re highlighting Aaron Metzger and colleagues’ article on the long-term benefits of youth civic engagement: Adolescents' Civic Engagement: Concordant and Longitudinal Associations Among Civic Beliefs and Civic Involvement. Aaron Metzger.jpg

We reached out to Aaron to discuss the key findings from his paper and asked him to give some advice to parents who want to foster community-mindedness and civic engagement in their children. Here’s what he had to say!

  1. If you had to choose just one main takeaway from your article, what would it be?

    Civic engagement is important for youth – we've known forever that when youth get involved in their communities, whether it's political activities or non-political activities, there are long-term benefits not just for the community but for the youth themselves. One of the most powerful outcomes is that it leads adolescents to be more involved in the future. And I think that one of the things we didn't have a good handle on was what the mechanism was that linked early community engagement with higher levels of future community engagement.

    One of the things I've really been interested in is this idea that it actually changes an adolescent’s view of the importance of, and the moral value of, engagement. So, the main takeaway from this article is that when youth are engaged, it actually affects how they think about civic duty: the more they’re engaged, the more increases we see in their view that engagement is important, valuable, and worthwhile, and that people who are engaged with their communities are worthy of respect.

  2. Some people see youth being involved in their communities through a pretty cynical lens and think that they’re only involved for some kind of personal gain. How would you respond to criticisms like that?

    Well, some youth do – some adolescents just get involved just for purposes of utility: to boost their resumes or improve a college application. But that’s a very, very small percentage of adolescents. When we ask youth why community engagement is important, we see a really domain specific sociomoral reasoning. For example, with volunteering, youth are very likely to say that it’s important because it helps people and that it directly contributes to the welfare of individuals. Alternatively, for political engagement, they understand it more in terms of shared responsibility, such as an importance to contribute to the political systems in our communities. The overwhelming attitudes of adolescents is that what they’re doing is important, whether because it has moral value from helping people or because it is part of my shared community responsibility. It’s very rare that you see adolescents say that include a sense of extrinsic motivation in their explanation for why they’re involved. 

    I also think it’s worth noting that, while I do not do a lot of front-line, applied work, I have a lot of colleagues that do, and they get pretty frustrated by these more cynical assumptions about youth. What most people don’t realize is just how much adolescents have to sacrifice to get involved with their communities, whether that’s through volunteering or political activism. A lot of adolescents are putting themselves into leadership positions, organizing against things like police brutality and participating directly in movements like Black Lives Matter. The level of sacrifice these kids are making with regard to the level of time, energy, and even personal sacrifice that they’re committing to these causes is definitely not aligned with the rather small gains they might get for, as an example, a college application.

  3. What about for kids who get involved kind of begrudgingly – is it worth it for parents or community leaders to really push kids to get involved?

    Early on there was a concern that if you forced adolescents to volunteer or get involved in their communities in another way that they’re just not going to get the same benefits because they’re lacking intrinsic motivation. However, the experiences that youth get, regardless of the motivations they enter in with, are transformational. Volunteering, political activism, and getting involved in your community in other ways help youth get exposed to the many different lived experiences of individuals living within their larger communities, which can really change how youth view larger issues, become more empathetic towards others, and become more likely to get involved in the future. For example, helping youth get involved in politics might help them become aware of the questions they have for their community leadership, and to think more deeply about the kinds of responses they see.

    I would also say that there are more micro-involvements that could help spark interest in youth who are more reluctant to get involved. For example, taking your child to peaceful protest in your community, a political campaign rally, or even opening up discussions about different political views and behaviors can open their eyes to the different ways that their involvement could manifest.

  4. The article also talks about the specific types of values that are affected by different kinds of civic engagement. Often youth will get involved in one specific type of activity, which might limit the diversity of their experiences. Should adolescents really be prioritizing trying to have a diversity of experiences? How can they do that?

    I think a lot of people are concerned that there’s just no way for youth to have such a wide variety of experiences, which might make them lose motivation towards trying to achieve that goal. If there’s one thing people take away from the article, it should be that any type of involvement is better than no involvement. The starting point is just for youth to start doing something that gets them involved in their community. But youth do tend to get engaged through very specific avenues, such as their church, school, or youth groups, which may funnel them into a specific type of volunteering or activism. Unfortunately, this may lead youth to value some forms of civic engagement more highly than others, and influence which types of activities they get involved in later in life.

    While a greater diversity of experiences is best, we can also look for ways to make single experiences more diverse. Just because an adolescent is volunteering in a food bank doesn’t mean they’re only contributing to the welfare of the people they’re working with. They’re also situated within a political system. These kinds of engagements can open the door to political discussions about what poverty looks like in the community, how it is addressed, and how we could do better for people in low-income families. Alternatively, adolescents that are helping out with a political rally can be encouraged to have deeper conversations about the down-stream effects of the policies being put forth.

    Adolescents only have a limited amount of time to spend on civic activities. If we can make these experiences more robust and tie in some of the political and non-political conversations that surround their involvement, we can transform a single activity into a much more diverse experience.

  5. So, what would your advice be to a parent who wants their child to be civic minded, get more involved in their communities, and value a wide variety of civic activities?

    Civic engagement can be a much stronger experience if it is done alongside a caring adult, so the first thing I would suggest if for parents to try to think of the activities they’re already engaged in and encourage their children to tag along. You really don’t need to search far to find these experiences: most parents are already involved in their church, their child’s school, or various other community or political organizations. The main takeaway is we only need to look at the existing social connections that we have and find ways to volunteer and get more engaged with your child alongside you. This way, you can also have deeper discussions with your child about the experience that will help broaden and diversify the experience. It’s really these discussions about the experiences that can help youth deepen their understanding of the implications and importance of what they’re involved in. How parents communicate with their kids about civic engagement will play a big role in how these youth think of civic duty and the kind of citizen they want to be.

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