New Voices: Voting for Snacks: Civic Engagement and Psychological Well-Being

By Gabrielle Shatan, PhD

I entered the preschool classroom carrying a stack of signed petitions for voter reform, and photos of people gathering such signatures at a local farmers market. You may wonder why the school psychologist was bringing such items into a classroom. How would such a topic contribute to the mental well-being of the young students who were waiting eagerly on the rug, each in their designated spot?

Psychoanalysis endeavors to unpack and examine formative experiences in the context of addressing life challenges. While the focus is often on the closest family bonds, it is known that formative experiences can occur outside of the home and in the context of other important relationships. 

With a warm smile Anne, the classroom teacher, reminds the students of the ongoing curriculum on change makers and on voting. The students had been learning about historical figures, such as Rosa Parks, while also voting on all manner of things including what the snack would be the following day. I was invited to talk to the class about my efforts to reform voting laws in NYS so that the children could meet a change-maker that they knew personally. Granted this was a departure from my usual presentations about feelings and friendships. The children know me as the “Feelings Doctor”, after all. My message to the children that morning was that one’s actions can lead to change. My hope is that this personal message will contribute to a greater sense of agency that will help these children navigate developmental tasks and life’s challenges.

One child raised her hand: “Did you feel shy when you had to ask strangers to sign your paper?” she asked. I asked the class if anyone had ever done something even when they felt shy or scared. I then affirmed that I did feel shy and added that I felt brave too because I got so many signatures even though I felt nervous. I reminded them that we can feel many things at the same time. Many such questions came up along with children sharing their own experiences of bravery or of speaking out for something important. The class shared their efforts to make changes such as reducing waste in the classroom to protect the planet. 

It might seem surprising for someone in my role to bring politics to a classroom of 4 and 5 year olds. Shouldn’t I stick to feelings and friendships? I would argue that in our roles in society as tenders of the mental health of others that we actually have a responsibility to acknowledge the greater forces that impact our children’s development. We do not only work to repair the damage done in the course of a life but can seek to provide opportunities for the development of resilience and emotional intelligence.

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