Teaching Kids the Importance of Citizenship

By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.

Teaching Kids the Importance of CitizenshipWhat a month November has been, but it’s the perfect time to take an in-depth look at the final core value in our series on the importance of building character: citizenship. Good citizens make wherever they go better. They abide by the laws and obey the rules. They conserve precious resources and protect the environment. They are loyal to their country, stay informed on issues, and vote in elections. They cooperate, serve with a smile, and are good neighbors.

So how do we teach all of that? First and foremost, citizenship has to be modeled. Our young citizens watch us in every interaction and they take our lead. Do we obey the speed limits when we’re behind the wheel, even when we’re in a hurry? Do we recycle those items that can be recycled, reused, and repurposed? Do we ever find ourselves in an express line at the grocery store with more items than are allowed? Showing citizenship is not an easy task, but our future depends on it.

Here are some ideas for helping nurture that virtue in our youngest citizens.

Give Students a Voice
Ask students to consider what could be better in their lives and how they might influence that change. Let them research current issues in their home, school, and community. Encourage students to host a betterment campaign and to write and deliver speeches to share their arguments for what causes need their assistance and support. Would they rather collect can openers for the homeless or books for children who are hospitalized? Would they like to start a Kindness Cards Club or make get well cards for local pharmacies? Would they like to host a water walk to earn money for digging wells in Africa, or would they like to participate in Jump Rope for the Heart to help combat heart disease? Host a mock election and put their ideas to a vote to give all of your citizens a voice. Encourage students to dream big, but remind them that it’s okay to start small.

Support Those Who Serve
A wonderful way to give citizenship wings is by supporting our military personnel. Our school family annually sends care packages and thank-you notes to active duty service men and women who are away from home on deployment. While we have traditionally sent these around Thanksgiving, this past year we decided to send handcrafted valentines and home-baked cookies and bars. Each year we solicit names and APO/FPO addresses from our community so that we can support friends and family members of our stakeholders. These hometown heroes fondly refer to the goodies we send as “hugs from home,” and they tell us time and time again that the cards and letters they receive from school-age children are the gifts they treasure the most while they’re serving.

For an added bonus, arrange a video chat with one of the recipients of your care packages. Click here to see the excitement that special visit generates for your young citizens.

Start a Green Team
Good citizens do their best to conserve resources. Find out from your future leaders what they suggest we do to reduce our carbon footprints. Last year, one of our fifth-grade girls suggested that we ask parents to turn off their cars while they wait in the car-rider line. Another young lady started a plastic bag collection so that she could knit them into a plarn (plastic yarn) sleeping mat for the homeless. A third suggestion was simply turning off the water while we’re brushing our teeth and/or soaping up our hands.

Does your school have a Green Team? Members of our team collect the paper recycling from the blue bins in classrooms each Friday and take it outside to our community recycling bin. Money raised from recycling can be used to plant a tree or some flowering plants for a butterfly garden.

Join a Group
Cooperation is a huge part of the citizenship ideal. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Texas State Marching Band Contest at the Alamodome in San Antonio, where the top 39 bands in the state vied for the championship. I couldn’t help but marvel at the clockwork of the parts that made up the whole, how individuals showing up, giving their best efforts, and marching in their spots with several hundred others cooperating, following suit, and doing their parts can unite to make magic of epic proportions. In marching band, it all starts with one person and an idea, a note on a page, and a dot on the field, and it becomes an eight-minute explosion of sight and sound that, done right, will take your breath away.

But it doesn’t have to be grand to be great. Encourage your students to become a part of an organization so that they can experience this kind of unifying teamwork and cooperation.

Take the Citizenship Challenge
Talk with your learners about what a good citizen is and does. Ask them how they make their class better. How do they make their family better? How do they make their sports team or Scout troop better? How do they make their school, their community, their country, and their world better?

Sometimes, just making a promise out loud can be the push-into-action that we need. Try this easy five-finger promise with someone you trust and see what a difference a few small gestures can make. Stand facing that someone. Put your right hand in the air as if making a pledge, and have them put up their left hand so your fingers and thumb mirror one another and are touching. You must each think of five easy things, one for each finger and one for the thumb, that you can do in the upcoming weeks to put citizenship into action and take turns promising them aloud. For example: I will recycle all of my plastic and paper; I will pick up any litter that I see; I will vote; I will donate some food to a pantry; I will obey the speed limits—small steps in the right direction that add up to big things for our world. Once you’ve promised, all that’s left is to do it. Try it with two or three friends and see what happens. Have your students try it with their classmates or with their siblings. Imagine the world-changing potential if everyone made a five-finger citizenship promise this month.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 33rd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.

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