Promote Civic Responsibility - and Start Young, Expert Says

Across the nation, people take to the streets in record numbers to overthrow the greed and politics they say has hijacked the American dream. No longer can you work hard and get ahead, they say: The system is rigged to promote the rich, the powerful, and the greedy.

The disenfranchised Occupy protesters and the citizens of Main Street have united in untold numbers. Time magazine names "The Protester" its 2011 Person of the Year. The young people who turned out in droves to vote in 2008 are now abandoning the political process; seeing hope in neither the Republicans nor the Democrats, they're disengaging out of disillusionment.

Former TV news anchor and reporter Mary Jane McKittrick, author of "Boomer and Halley -- Election Day: A Town Votes for Civic Responsibility" (, says it's time to remind people that civic duty is not solely the responsibility of elected officials.

"It's easy to blame Wall Street, the White House, Congress, the pundits, and everyone in between," says McKittrick. "But we fail to see the role we've all played in the fiasco. We voted for these people. We abdicated our responsibilities to them.  We let them have the power.

"Now we, the people, are powerless. No wonder our kids think the system is broken and they don't need to participate."

It's a problem she saw coming and why she wrote "Boomer and Halley - Election Day," winner of a Mom's Choice Award for Juvenile Humor. It's part of a series designed to help parents teach 4- to 8-year-olds civil values, including lifelong civic involvement. A successful Democracy depends on civic-minded citizens, but people don't get that way overnight, McKittrick points out. It's a value instilled in children from a very young age.

That's not happening.

"We're the 99 percent complacent; people have stopped being involved. America has stopped voting," McKittrick said, citing a Project Vote analysis of the November 2010 elections, in which a majority of registered voters did not go to the polls.

A study of American teenagers' civic participation from 1976 through 2005 found a general decline over the decades, according to the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood.

The high point for conventional participation, like writing to a public official, came in 1978. But even then, only 27 percent of 17- to 19-year-olds declared such intentions, according to a September 2009 article published by the MacArthur Foundation.

"Even alternative forms of engagement ? such as boycotting and demonstrating ? declined among high school seniors during the 1980s, reaching a low of 17 percent in 1986," according to the authors.

That number settled at around 20 percent during the late 1990s through 2005, they wrote.

The "Yes we can!" campaign of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 inspired record numbers of young people to get involved. But two years later, they dropped out of sight.

Young Americans, blacks and lower-income Americans participated in the election in historic numbers, according to the non-partisan non-profit Project Vote. But by 2010, 23 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were "civically alienated," a Tufts University study found, and they mostly stayed home during the Nov. 2, 2010 midterm elections.

"Non-voters were the majority in 2010," according to Dr. Lorraine Minnite, who analyzed turnout for Project Vote.

Interestingly, people ages 65 and older - who have a rich history of civic involvement - constituted 21 percent of voters though they make up only 13 percent of the population.

"For the first time in quite awhile, we're seeing Americans in the streets," says McKittrick. "But no one's talking to the kids about the protests. Children should be taught what they mean and shown how the situation can be turned around. This is a very teachable moment."

Start now teaching children to pay attention, take responsibility and work through problems together, she says.

"Do that, and they'll probably never have to Occupy a park."

About Mary Jane McKittrick

Mary Jane McKittrick is the creator, author, producer and publisher of the Boomer and Halley series of children's books, comic tales that teach core values such as honesty and responsibility. McKittrick is a former broadcast journalist and holds a dual bachelor's degree in Theatre Arts and Speech Communication.

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