How to Teach Kids About Propaganda

We live in an era of propaganda unlike any in history. Governments and corporations have tools that would awe propagandists of the past. Mass digital media has centralized control of what people hear and see. Institutional pedagogy has centralized how they think about those things. Algorithms select for the most effective vehicles for ideological payloads.

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The fact that this was so subtle and (until very recently) plausibly deniable was a feature, not a bug. It is easier to resist propaganda once you see it for what it is.

If we, as parents and guardians, are going to raise free children in this environment, we must help them see and evaluate the propaganda that pervades their education and entertainment. Only when they are able to assess the motives behind these messages will they be able to make their decisions independently - or - freely.

But how do you discuss something as subtle and complex as propaganda with children? Grown-ups barely agree on the definitions of “propaganda.”

My favorite suggestion comes from fellow author Stephen Porter: consider everything propaganda. As he tells his kids, “everyone is trying to manipulate you.” Everyone talking to your children has something they would like your children to believe and do. Everyone has motives for those desires.

Advertising provides easy practice. Advertisers want children to believe that their toys are great, that the kids will have fun or be cool if they have the toy. The desired action is also clear: advertisers want you or your children to buy the toy. The motive is always the same: they want to make money.

School and “news” propaganda is tougher. The desired beliefs and actions are lied about or are second-order. Motives are carefully hidden by shell companies and cats-paws. Sometimes, the most important bit is the part they DON’T say. Nonetheless, the habit of thinking through desired beliefs, actions, and motives is useful anyway. Be very careful about believing anyone with murky motives.

It is at this stage that I believe stories like “The Crazy Crocodile - Plover Problems” are helpful. Digestible stories provide easy touchpoints for discussion and analysis. “Sleeping on the beach,” for example, has already become a household term in our house for falling victim to your own narratives. Other vignettes provide narrative metaphors for other common features of propaganda like fear, venality, and corruption.

This framework, of course, does not include exemptions for parents (or Copper Jungle). We also have things we want our children to believe and do. Our motives, we hope, are that we genuinely love our kids and want them to grow up as happy, successful people. Discussing these things with your children is a perfectly valid option. Done honestly, it will build trust and transparency in your relationships.

That trust and transparency will pay dividends as you help them navigate a world in which nearly everything really is propaganda. It can feel overwhelming; after all, this is new territory for many of us adults too. But armed with a simple framework of believe/do/motive, even preschool children can begin to interpret messaging confidently and with the individual agency that freedom entails.


Have you used other methods to teach your kids about propaganda? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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