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How to Explain Government to Your Child (or anyone, for that matter)

Too many times we start discussions about government with “how it works.” There are assumptions about keeping order and peace and it all being done in everyone’s best interest. We are supposed to believe, and teach our children, the relationships of individuals can and should be directed by a central focus of power and decision making.

Part of this image may be based on the common understanding of basic morality that applies to everyone. It is a rare person who doesn’t believe murder and stealing are wrong, at least when it comes to those things happening to themselves. And almost everyone believes that we should help take care of others when they are having trouble taking care of themselves.

But what doesn’t follow from these things is that it is best or morally right to have some people in control of all the rest of the people. We need to explore what the words government and state mean. We need to be honest about what we might hope government might do. We need to look at history and current events and see what those with the power of government really do.

How to Explain Government to Your Child (or anyone, for that matter)

All the sub-definitions of the word govern come down to control. There are two options.

  • Individuals can govern themselves or
  • some other person or group can govern them.

Both cannot be happening at the same time. A person is either free to govern themselves or they are not.

The politically pertinent definition of state refers to

the political organization constituting the basis of civil government or the sphere of highest governmental authority and administration

And to round out the definitions, civil is a word that originally had to do with the idea of home,  and how people individually treated each other, i.e. “let us be civil about this.”

After a child has a basic understanding of what government by others really means,  you can discuss misconceptions about government. The main misconceptions are these:

  1. That government is benevolent and looks out for everyone’s best interests
  2. That specific and detailed laws help people get along.
  3. That laws should be used to protect people from themselves.
  4. That if most people want a certain law, it is okay to force it on others.
  5. That government must control money for it to work right.
  6. That government wants to protect us from other governments.
  7. That taking other people’s money is okay if you have good ideas for how to spend it.

Does government to look out for our best interests?

1. Children may have a hard time separating the idea of government from proper parental authority. Parents are understood to have responsibility, and the attendant authority, to take care of their children. This is acceptable until a person has the cognitive ability and physical means of taking care of themselves. Children understand this.

Putting aside that government regulations artificially limit opportunity, most children could make good progress in taking care of themselves from their early teenage years. They intuitively know this when they get close to this age, regardless of any tendencies to be lazy. Most children are on some level looking forward to the independence that adulthood should afford them. If it is pointed out that government attempts to keep people from taking advantage of adulthood, most children would be aghast.

From there, it is easy to help them understand that the power which is created by a government’s existence attracts those who would abuse such power. People who seek such positions of power are rarely benevolent. They will smoothly lie and present the appearance of good to gain their position. This is easily shown from history. Real history, as opposed to what is taught by the government’s themselves, clearly shows how powerful people almost always use their power for their own gain and maintaining power.

Laws limit real problem solving

2. Every home has its rules, but a little observation shows that very few of those rules are written in stone. There are a few basic ones that don’t change, but by and large, parents find the need to adjust what is required or expected. Part of this is because parents, too, are learning; part of it is because circumstances can change; and part of it is because as children grow, they are given more freedom. If all the house rules had to be made the moment a couple got married or the instant a child was born, all kinds of inexperience would reign.

It isn’t long before children are old enough to recognize and appreciate how useful this flexibility is. Building on this awareness, a parent can explain how fewer and less specific laws allow healthy flexibility in the adult world, too. Ideally, adults would be free to work out their own agreements and disagreements without a third party (government) taking sides, collecting money for fines and licenses, or choosing preferences for everyone.

Barring such adult freedom, it is best to have laws that allow for the creativity to address the real needs and concerns of the moment. Otherwise, people spend more time trying to avoid the penalty of a given law than doing what might be best. Or, conversely, they may get away with things because “it is legal,” when it is not a civil way to treat someone else.

Along the same lines, the more detailed a law is, the less it allows for the spirit of good to be accomplished through the law. For instance, we may tell our children to be considerate of other people’s things. But if one of them really does accidentally break something or not understand how it was to be treated, there may be a need to give mercy. Laws should allow for mercy.

One last aspect of laws is that the goal should be compensation or reconciliation between parties. If a child ruins that which belongs to another person, it might be right to make the child pay for it. Even a child will easily see that it does the offended party little or no good if a third party takes money from the offender and keeps it, or only confines the child for a while.

Should we be criminals if we hurt ourselves?

3. Sometimes parents put limits on what children do or eat in order to protect them. However, over time the children might be ready to try some of those same things, might be taught some of the reasons why some things are still a risk, and will learn how to try to figure these things out for themselves.

Then, when they are adults, if they want chocolate cake for breakfast. They may choose how much to exercise or sleep and suffer the consequences or reap the rewards. They might find uses for things their parents didn’t fully understand. There needs to be room for individual needs and desires without some distant person, who knows nothing about them, telling them what to do.

Children need to be encouraged that when they are adults they can make good decisions for themselves without government oversight and threat of punishment. Consider the irony of it: Don’t hurt yourself, or we will hurt you worse.

But what if everyone wants it to be a law?

4. One of the most misleading ideas of purportedly democratic government is that “if most people want it that way, it should be a law.” Even assuming that the democratic (or republican) mode of government is anything other than masses of people being emotionally manipulated, mob rule is an unjust premise.

What if most people think ice cream should be outlawed because some scientific study showed that there are more murders when people eat more ice cream? (True study) Should a choice be made for everyone as one final decision, and under threat of punishment if someone dares to make, sell, or eat ice cream? After all, ice cream isn’t necessary for life or health. It might even be a food that some people eat enough to harm their health. Are those good reasons that it should be made illegal and no one should be allowed to have it, under threat of fines or a few years in prison?

Another example that might resonate with children is that of swimming. Children die every year while swimming or playing near water. What if most people decide swimming should be illegal or at least regulated? Should swimming be outlawed or all kinds of restrictions be made about it? How do laws help (the vast majority of) parents who are already trying to take care of their children as best they can? How do they help children who would be better off learning to swim?

There is a difference between people agreeing not to do a certain thing in a certain time or place and a law backed by threat of violence. In our house, we agree not to play loud music before 7 AM. After 7 AM, we agree not to be upset if people make the noises of living. We want to get along and be nice to each other.

Money happens

5. Children are experts at finding ways of getting what they want. With appropriate guidance, they learn how to moderate this, but they never lose the idea that certain currencies can be spent certain ways. My now adult children know that if they help clean the kitchen, that can buy them time with me watching a movie. Even when they were little, they knew that getting their chores done on time could earn them free time.

These are examples of bartering in service and time. But one household currency was probably books. Books were enjoyed for their own sake, shared, exchanged, saved, given. Time with books was often the reward for getting things done in a timely manner.

Legos may have also been treated as currency at times. Everyone has their own stash. They could collect more, build with them, trade them for other more desired pieces or other belongings. Legos have the added benefit of coming in fairly uniform sizes, colors, and shapes that can have more or less value.

These are just a couple of examples to show that it is not hard to find a medium of exchange in a household. It can be intentional or unintentional. Find something in your house that all or most of the children value. Encourage the use of it in a monetary way. They will quickly see that money is not something that the government needs to be involved in. It just needs to be something that everyone values and can easily be exchanged while holding that value.

Governments are nearly always at war

6. One of the effects of government schools is that children in them likely conflate the school with the parents, looking to the institution as someone who watches over them. For the child taught at home, by his own parents, this is not so much a problem, unless the parent passes on the misconception.

In reality, the government uses its citizens as game pieces, trying to pretend they are cherished children. I would say pawns, but a broader comparison to games seems more useful. Most children have played games where pieces need to be sacrificed for the goal of winning. That is what the government does.

Each government just wants to win against other governments. They want more game pieces and more board space at their disposal so that they have a better chance of winning. Most government officials think as little about sacrificing their citizens to war as children think of losing a checker. Unless it is the last piece, of course, because that means they lost all the way.

When did it become okay to take other peoples’ money to fund your own ideas?

7. Taxes are a government’s way of stealing to keep itself funded and in operation. Governments are not businesses. They are extortionists demanding you buy their services.

Taxes are not voluntary, no matter who you voted for. If you try not to pay them you can be severely punished. People can vote to take some of your money if enough agree to it, so see point number 4. It takes very little to teach your children about taxes, much like politicians think very little before taxing you.

Even a small child can do extra work around the house for pay. Let them keep and spend it the first few times. Then, tell them you are going to play the government game. Tell them they don’t get to know the end of the game until it is over, but assure them that as much as you imitate government now, you will be more moral in the end.

At some point, start charging them for making money. Take a certain percentage of what they earn, increasing that percentage as they make more. Explain the math to them.

Next, start taxing them on things they own. For instance, require a tax for using their bike or skateboard. Have a refrigerator tax. Tax them more if they eat certain foods.

At some point, you might decide to take a vote and see if everyone wants to collect taxes for a certain *good* thing. Maybe most of the children want a new game. You could design a special tax for collecting for that, just because it is convenient. Possibly, you could exact a tax if they wear long pants.

Tell them to observe how all this taxing changes their behaviors. Do they dress differently or eat differently? Does it affect their relationships with those who voted to take their money?

All the while, I suggest you be storing up each child’s taxes in separate containers or accounts, to give back to them later. Show them how much money has accumulated over time. Give them ideas of how they might have missed opportunities to spend it or invest it.

Having the right attitude about government

All of us would benefit if children (or everyone, for that matter) where taught more what government is. Government schools, propaganda, wanting to control other people, and false hopes all lead people to think that government is something it isn’t or can be what it cannot be.

Frequently, people in and out of government act like issues as so complicated that only government solutions will work. The exact opposite is true. Government has no solutions. It has only money laundering, gang warfare, and behavioral manipulation. These things have nothing to do with people solving problems and getting along. Rather, government actions create all kinds of problems, then says we need more government to fix those same problems.

We may not be able to completely do away with government, but we can teach our children to have the right attitude about it, to not look to government as a tool against others, and to be very suspicious of all governmental promises. Government doesn’t help us get along, it gets in the way of us getting along.


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