Children and youth and direct democracy

Children and youth and direct democracy

by Rita Brügger

Accomplishment democracy

Our ancestors created something valuable for us and our country: direct democracy. This accomplishment enables us to have a high degree of participation and, at the same time, to share responsibility for politics in our country, at municipal, cantonal and state level. Not statesmen, kings, emperors or sultans determine the fate of our state. In Switzerland, the sovereign, i.e. the citizens, determines laws and taxes. Other countries envy us for these opportunities, and in many places we see efforts to extend the right of participation there as well and to achieve greater freedom.
For some time now, however, in our country there have often been complaints about a lack of interest on the part of the younger generation. “Jungbürgerfeiern” (Junior citizens’ celebrations) have to be cancelled due to absences, or they are promoted by making the celebration similar to a party, instead of addressing the young people in such a way that they meet the start into maturity as citizens with the necessary seriousness and a certain pride. Then perhaps young parties would have more growth, and the new voters would not be conspicuous by their absence in upcoming votes and elections.
Lately pupils and students are  taking to the streets for climate protection. However, what their broad commitment to a better world and their campaigning for a good policy and a sustainable future will look like in the longer term, remains to be seen.

What the young one learn

Democracy does not come by itself. In sometimes arduous struggles, past generations have achieved the rights and duties we have today. Oligarchs do not like to give up privileges. Freedom fighters had to learn that, too. Quite often they were in danger because of their opinion.  But do we not underestimate the importance of these freedoms and take them for granted? It is still true that every man, every woman should grow into the political practices, that they undergo and experience what direct democracy means and what it means  to continue cultivating and not  sacrificing it to the zeitgeist.
It should be noted that from an early age children can be introduced in many ways to the precious accomplishment of our form of government. This applies for coexistenece in the family, in kindergarten and school as well as for society in general. Also in the field of democracy is valid: What the young ones  learn, they will take along for  later life.

Family, school, society

Jeremiah Gotthelf has written: “At home must begin, what shall shine in the Fatherland.” How true is this saying. If the child in the family is introduced into the coexistence where everyone has his or her place, if it is also introduced to take and fill its own place, if it listens and participates, then this is the first step to living democracy. Children can also take responsibility according to their age. They do their part to make life pleasant in the small community: they carry out small tasks, think along, empathize with others, experience solidarity.
The kindergarten offers further opportunities to practice living together. After the parents and siblings, teachers with their own personalities and other children, mostly of the same age, come on board. There are different characters and people of different origins. The child’s field of vision is broadened. The child listens, learns to know otherness and diversity, represents his opinion. Also there, as later in school, it takes over tasks and more and more responsibility.
At school the child is introduced to the cultural techniques of reading, writing and arithmetic. They are the basis for the future citizen. At the end of his school years the child should have the necessary equipment to deal with political issues. This includes: knowing the history of the region and the country, reading and understanding voting documents (which, incidentally, was also a reason for compulsory schooling in Switzerland in the 20th century) and discussing and debating with others in order to form one’s own opinion as a responsible citizen.
In addition to family and school, society also has an obligation to ensure that children grow up to become citizens. Factual, balanced information, especially in textbooks, but also in other media, can help the young person to develop values that enable him to strengthen his interest in others and in the common good. In doing so, he can develop his own identity and, with a view to his environment, contribute more and more to the well-being of the community and thus also to the preservation of direct democracy.

Conveying knowledge, developing empathy

Of course, books, stories, narrations and the immediate experience contribute a lot to strengthening people’s awareness. Often you don’t think much about how something comes into being in your immediate vicinity. How much knowledge and human strength were and are due for something to emerge and to remain. What happens for example in the municipality? Where does the water come from? What about the wastewater? Who monitors the wastewater system? What do we do if it does not rain for a long time? Who is building the roads, who is scrubbing them? And who pays for the many public buildings like the schools, the swimming bath and much more? Some things are taken for granted to us, and one can leave litter anywhere without any worries. Recently there was a report on the radio that they are in the process of producing recyclable tents made out of cardboard for open-air festivals, because plastic tents left behind after the parties are a burden on the environment. There are better solutions.
A society based on solidarity takes care of all aspects of living together and also has nature in mind. But this does not develop overnight. A child that is urged from an early age to take care of his or her own belongings and those of family members and comrades, will later have a better understanding of the environment than a child that only is asked to decide whether this or that food would suit him or her. Maybe now and then a little renunciation would be quite appropriate instead of living up to a fun society that puts the fulfilment of wishes first.
You can talk about such things also with children. They should realise that mothers cannot buy everything that is on offer. They can understand that the fruits already in house are eaten before fresh ones are bought. And that also the older, not very modern clothes can still be worn.
Later they learn that there are taxes that everybody has to pay, also their parents. For example, taxes are payed to enable every child to go to school and learn. This opens the eyes of some boys, especially when they hear that in certain countries only the rich or only boys are allowed to attend school today. This knowledge may enable the children to really  appreciate the value of our education system available to everyone.
According to their age, children and adolescents are growing more and more towards the idea of democracy. Firstly they are focused on their families, nature, neighbours and comrades. Increasingly, their knowledge is being expanded. Starting from their own neighbourhood, their community, their canton and then the state, they learn about the world.

About the value of joining associations

Today there are countless possibilities for children to spend their leisure time. Very valuable are youth groups that can pave the way for children to grow into direct democracy. In smaller or larger groups, the children experience living together. They get used to the rules and customs of their association. A regular, punctual appearance is in demand. If they can not join, an apology must be made. Friendships are forged and mutual accountability develops. If Nora can not participate in the exercise of the choir, a voice is missing. When doing artistic gymnastics Tim is standing by to help. Older, more experienced youths act as trainers for the younger ones. Young Samaritans take on their own job at the monthly training, or young firefighters learn how to regularise traffic. Such action takes responsibility and the boys can become mature and finally they are proud in a sound way, because they feel that they are needed in real life. They are trusted to do something. Everyone is important.
Anyone who has already attended such association events knows about the democratic way decisions in an association are made. The programme is discussed and approved mutually at the General Assembly. In a musical society the question is to be discussed whether its 50 years old flag is to be restored or replaced. There is a lively discussion in which every opinion is appreciated, and often the reasons for the decision are justified. Then the vote takes place. Interestingly, it is mainly the young members who decide to preserve the traditional flag. This majority now makes it possible to commission the restoration, which may be financially more expensive than the acquisition of a new flag.
When associations give young members the opportunity to participate in important functions early on, this is a further incentive to support this association and to contribute with the best of one’s knowledge and conscience to make it work.

Standing up for the common good

On the night before 1 November, children ring the doorbells in their neighbourhood to beg for “sweet or sour” things. They ask for themselves and their friends. Around the Epiphany there is the custom in many places to go singing from door to door and to ask a contribution for a charitable purpose from the inhabitants, for example against child labour in India or for a school for the disabled in Peru. With the latter, the children learn to look beyond the tip of their noses and to work for a fairer world.
The same applies when pupils sell “Schoggitalers” (chocolate coins). The sale of these chocolate coins is always under the theme of conservatiob of local history and nature. This year, for example, it is about the preservation of insects’ worthy of being protected. When schoolchildren on the street offer these chocolate coins in shiny gold foil with a wonderful design, they learn to commit themselves to a certain purpose. But they not only learn to stand up just for this. They approach people, greet them friendly, present the project to them and answer questions.
They also have to accept disappointments. Not all people passing by will react with enthusiasm to the children. There may be rushed, frustrated people who do not show any interest. This is also a school of life and belongs to direct democracy. Because each person is free in its opinion. The child can try to inform people, but how everyone reacts is his own business. The rule there is: stay friendly anyway and address the next person passing by.
Who knows, maybe one or the other citizen will remember these first experiences of democracy later when he or she approaches somebody on the street tries to win his or her fellow citizens for an initiative, a referendum or an upcoming ballot.
Let us come back to the young people’s citizen celebration mentioned at the beginning, which had to be cancelled due to a lack of interest. In the meantime, that community has entrusted its apprentices with the task of contacting all the young people personally by phone and motivating them for the upcoming young citizen celebration.
Apparently this approach has worked. So there are countless ways to win the young for direct democracy. They are happy to respond if they can understand its meaning and are trained in it from an early age. We must not miss the opportunity to grant this to them!    •

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