Kenneth Knepper: Do 4th-graders have answers to state budget woes?

Kenneth Knepper

Often, I’m asked to expound on the theory suggested by so-called experts, that in a few years, everyone currently middle-aged and above will be doomed because our children will take over the world’s leadership and, as parents, we never taught them anything except winning.

Up until today, I might have even launched into an extemporaneous discussion based on the stories I’ve read, about our failures as parents and how life always had winners and losers — whether at a little league ball game or later, shoddy investments from companies that sends top-secret information randomly by e-mail.

However, my tune changed after spending a half hour with a group of fourth-graders working on claims during a “gold rush” event at their grade school.

It started earlier that day, when my son — dressed as a cowboy — asked me to apply a synthetic mustache to his lip.

I also wear a mustache, although it’s a real one, so I couldn’t help but feel a little pride as I carefully lined up his vending machine model.

After all, I know how irritable I get when I inadvertently lop off a piece of my mustache while shaving, causing me to have to make adjustments by leaning slightly to one side or other until the area grows back.

So, while I stressed the importance of remaining perfectly still while I stuck the furry mass to his lip, he fretted over having enough pink lemonade for his partner and him to “sell” to fellow miners.

It was then I began thinking our country may be OK after all.

Here was an enterprising young man figuring out a way to collect gold nuggets by simply adopting the principals from an economics class — supply and demand.

He arrived at school, with a wagon and backpack filled with a colander for cleaning his claim, a lawn chair for lounging, wooden stakes for marking territory and tape measure to make sure he and his claim partner utilized every inch of the designated space allowed.

When my wife and I arrived for lunch a few hours later, I was reminded of an archaeological dig site as about 40 students moved through areas cordoned off with yarn and string.

Some plots even contained tents.

Sitting smugly in the center of his claim, my son was counting gold nuggets while taking bids for a stick pony he bartered for earlier.

“Horse for sale,” he chanted to anyone within earshot.

One boy tried to make a reasonable offer with a handful of gold and only a few pieces of sand, but was turned away by a girl, who dumped several gold nuggets in his hand.

“Deal,” he told her as he handed over the pony.

Meanwhile, his partner was feverishly crawling around on the ground looking for more gold, which was strewn across the school playground.

“I got a fate card,” he said from beneath his straw hat and extra bushy mustache that might have been a caterpillar in a former life.  “I had to go to the general store and buy pork and beans, and now I’m almost broke.”

My wife and I ate lunch as they continued selling lemonade for three gold nuggets per glass and searched surrounding areas for gold, curious if we might be charged some kind of “squatter” fee by these gold sharks.

Luckily, I found a few nuggets laying in the grass, just in case.

After finishing our meals, we talked with some of the other students and teachers, and then captured plenty of moments for posterity via digital camera.

However, before driving away, I looked at the gold rush community and surmised our world would be in safe hands, after all.

In fact, I might even share the students’ experience with state lawmakers, who struggled with budget deficits during the latest legislative session.

A little bartering from fourth-graders might be the answer to many states woes.

But, while my son and his friends continue sharpening their skills, I’m still going to hold onto my wallet a little tighter knowing that his skills could cost me in the way of allowance, gifting and investments.

Ironically, I do the same during a state legislative session, also.

Ken Knepper is publisher of The Newton Kansan and The McPherson Sentinel. He can be contacted at