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Families Learn About Civics Through Everyday Activities
By Marjorie O. Rendell, First Lady of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Marjorie O. Rendell
Marjorie O. Rendell
(Photo: Courtesy the National Constitution Center)
Some say that dinner-table conversation is as obsolete as an eight-track tape player, a throwback to those Leave It to Beaver days.

That's unfortunate.

When I was young, at least a few nights each week, our family would sit together at dinner and we would talk about what was in the news that day, ongoing political campaigns, and even things as complicated as how our government worked under the framework of the Constitution. School was school, but this dinner-table discourse played an important role in my education—perhaps drawing me to a career as an attorney and federal judge—and in my marrying Ed, who was so clearly headed for public service. As our son, Jesse, was growing up we sought to engage him in similar discussions, though admittedly it was more of a challenge. He was much more willing to talk about sports and rock bands.

So many things get in the way of families sitting down to dinner, including rigorous homework assignments, involvement in sports, the time constraints of two working parents, and competition with the television.

Now that I am wearing two hats—federal judge and First Lady of Pennsylvania—I have made it my personal initiative to work to improve the way our children learn about civics, public service, and the Constitution. Working closely with the National Constitution Center, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, as well as more than 65 organizations and engaged citizens in a coalition known as PennCORD (Pennsylvania Coalition for Representative Democracy), I hope to make a difference. Much of our work is aimed at creating models for teachers to use in the classroom, but we all play an important part in educating our children. As parents, we must embrace our role as instructors of the next generation, teaching our children to value the role of citizen envisioned by the Constitution.

And of course the education we provide need not take place only at the dinner table.

We can have discussions while driving to a soccer game, sitting at a baseball game, or waiting in line to see a movie. And the conversations should be fun and relate to the things our children enjoy in life. Perhaps an episode of 24 on TV can spur a discussion about the rights of criminals versus the rights of citizens. Maybe a news story about a difference of opinion between the President and Congress can initiate a discussion about those differences and why the two branches are meant to sometimes play "tug of war" under our Constitutional structure. You can learn more by visiting my Web site at www.firstlady.state.pa.us. The National Constitution Center Web site at www.constitutioncenter.org is also a wonderful resource where parents can learn how to talk to their kids about these issues in an interesting and interactive way.

As parents, we must lead the way toward responsible citizenship by voting in every election, for our voting—or not voting—sets an example for our sons and daughters. Bring your eight-year-olds into the voting booth and let them pull the levers. Equally important is our responsibility to serve on jury duty. We each have the right under the Constitution to be judged by a jury of peers. With that right comes the responsibility to serve as jurors for our fellow citizens.

This week we celebrate the birthday of our Constitution, signed 218 years ago in Philadelphia. We should all celebrate this great compact that has kept us united through a civil war, a depression, two world wars, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, Watergate, and 9/11. Ours is a form of government we should value, one that many countries emulate, and others envy.

Make today a starting point for another phase of your children's education, and yours too. Take the opportunity to "start a conversation" with your children and together learn more about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. It could open your eyes. Even more important, it could open theirs. There's nothing outdated about teaching our children.

Marjorie O. Rendell is the First Lady of Pennsylvania and a judge on the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals.