This summer, we were part of a reunion bringing together three generations of family members to reminisce, engage, enjoy and create new memories.
During our time together, 11 of the youngest generation, ranging in age from four to 15 years of age, found much in common as they enjoyed fishing, hiking, boating, playing games, cooking, four-wheeling, chopping wood for fires (think s’mores) and engaging in all sorts of activities.
There was a suggestion that it might be helpful to establish a set of “rules” for using electronic devices during our time together. However, instead of us adults dictating rules we decided to focus on “agreements” that the young cousins could establish. Our belief was that if they created the agreements they would be more likely to follow them.
We all congregated around a table and asked the young cousins if they would like to identify a set of agreements we could all follow during the family reunion. They thought that a good idea and asked for an example of the types of agreements they could make. So, we began with the use of electronic devices and immediately one of the youth suggested “no devices until after 7 p.m.” He asked the others if that was OK and they all agreed. As other family members arrived for the reunion they were informed of the agreement and during our time together we were all reminded of that decision.
We asked if there were other group agreements they wanted to make during our time together and one of the youngest cousins asked if we could all agree to “include everyone in the activities” (given that recently she had been excluded and did not think it fair). The cousins talked about including everyone and reminded themselves that the next day another cousin would be joining us and he is four years old (much younger than the others) they then committed to make sure the activities were appropriate for him and how to effectively engage him. Throughout the next days they rarely used their devices and really did a great job of engaging everyone.
During one of our hikes, following a picnic lunch, we were forced to make a decision on how to proceed, given that there were two paths ahead. One, much shorter, would lead directly back to the parking lot and the other would continue along the lake for a couple of miles. One of the cousins suggested a vote and asked how many wanted to return to the parking lot and how many wanted to take the longer trail.
About 75% of youth and adults voted to take the shorter route and thus the decision was made. Just before we made the turn for the parking lot one of the cousins asked if there was an alternative to go halfway on the longer route and then return, to which his peers indicated that a group decision had been made and while they appreciated that option it would not be considered. The people had spoken.
It would have been easy for us adults to determine a set of rules for behaviors during our time together, but it was much better to engage the youth in decision-making leading to their “ownership” of the agreements. A habit of democratic processing was developed and used while we were together.
I am not sure what each of the young cousins will take from these democratic experiences but I do know several times us adults shared the benefits of encouraging and supporting youth making decisions that directly impact them.
These experiences reconfirmed for me that, given high levels of trust, expectations and support, youth can effectively make decisions, live by them and be active principled citizens.
At a time when our nation needs everyone to engage in our democracy, ensuring our youngest citizens fully participate in individual and social decision-making is of paramount importance. We do not need to wait for them to participate in community forums, learn about democracy in our schools or be eligible to vote in formal elections to acquire civic knowledge, virtues and habits we can create direct democratic opportunities at home, in our neighborhoods and even at family reunions.