The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Talking to kids about how the government works

(Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Our news feeds are dominated by politicians, politics and public policy initiatives. Our dinner table conversations jump from President Trump’s latest tweets to Congress’s late-night tax-reform vote.

And although most parents have no trouble explaining to their kids where they fall on the political spectrum, many have a much harder time talking to their kids about how government works and, more important, how they might one day be able to help fix it.

Unfortunately, these basic civics lessons aren’t always covered in school, and it is up to parents to fill the education gaps.

Kids consume news but don’t know what’s real or fake. Here’s how parents can help.

As a lawyer, I know how our government works. Yet sometimes I have a hard time explaining the basics of U.S. government to my children. For some help distilling it, I turned to my colleague Deborah Cupples, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

Her new book, “It Is About You: How American Government Works and How to Fix It,” is a plain-language, nonpartisan guide to understanding the government and offers concrete ways to improve it.

Here are four key civics lessons that Cupples encourages parents to share with their children.

1. The rule of law. “The idea is to enforce the law similarly for all people — that nobody is above the law,” Cupples explains. She compares the rule of law to the rule of men, explaining that in countries where the rule of men is followed, rulers get to decide to whom the law applies. “Living under the ‘rule of men’ is unpredictable and unfair,” she discusses in her book. Under the rule of law, all people must follow the rules, whether they’re a janitor, a teacher, a business owner or even the president.

2. The three branches of government. The legislature (Congress) makes the laws. Our judiciary (judges) plays the role of “referee, deciding whether government action complies with the law.” Our executive branch (the president and executive agencies) executes and enforces the laws. The reason for this separation of powers is to be sure that each branch of government is kept in check. The three branches of government help to protect the rule of law.

3. Influences on government. If the 24-hour news cycle has taught us anything, it is that the people in government are passionate about the causes they believe in. And although a lot of their excitement is based on their passion, some of their passion probably stems from the influences that helped them get elected. These influences on government can dictate what issues are up for debate and even might dictate how a politician will vote on an issue. Lobbyists, the media, voters and citizens can influence government officials by using their voices, their communities and their pocketbooks. Parents need to help kids understand that some politicians are influenced by money — and that isn’t always good for families.

 4. Everyone can (and should) get involved. It’s important that families get involved in government, whether simply by showing up at the polls or by becoming active in the political process. Parents can encourage children to stand up for a cause they care about. Cupples explains that by writing letters, visiting their elected officials or getting involved in a grass-roots organization, even children can affect government. Parents can get involved in many of the same ways. They can even take their involvement a step further by running for office or encouraging their families to get involved in a political cause.

In the Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln declared that we are a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Parents can help fill the civics education gaps that schools leave open by understanding how our systems of government work and then discussing these important concepts with their children.

“Your vote matters,” Cupples says. “So does your voice, and it’s powerful.”

Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where she also serves as an associate director of the Center on Children and Families. She is also a writer and a photographer. To connect with Stacey, follow her on Facebook and Twitter.​

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates, and join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and work. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

More reading: 

Seven real-life skills your teen needs before leaving home

Why parents should celebrate Black History Month

What teens wish their parents knew about social media