“Emily versus Adam.” A smile brightened my teenage daughter’s face as she began reading the history of case number twenty-four. “‘Adam hit me for no reason.’ Punishment: Adam will make Emily’s bed for three days.”
“I remember those family trials,” Emily reminisced, obviously touched by the tender memory. “While awaiting the verdict, we children would discuss whether or not the defendant would be found guilty.”
Memories of our family court trials still warm me, too. Conceived to ease my task of settling disputes among my three active children, our court trials were a blessing to our entire family. This is how it all began.
As a young mother, I found myself overwhelmed with the calling of Mom—that is, the literal calling of “Mom, she’s … ,” “Mom, tell him to stop … ,” and so forth. I smile when I recall that at such times my name “Mom” seemed to have a line above it, like the line symbol in math that means it is repeated forever. When my husband came home from work, I would tell him that I was prepared to be a supreme court justice, because all I did all day was arbitrate disputes and mete out justice. My day was constantly interrupted with petty arguments that I knew would be forgotten as quickly as they cropped up if only I were not habitually sought after by my children as their overworked court of last resort.
I had tried saying, “Solve your own problems,” but the children didn’t seem able to do that. After yet another long talk with my husband (sometimes I could not solve my problems alone either), he came up with a wonderful idea: “Since you feel like a judge and jury, let’s take the problems to court—a family court—and have our own family trials.”
That was the beginning of more peace. A sheet of paper attached to the refrigerator had columns for the date, the names of the parties involved, and a brief description of the incident. The children were instructed to list their grievances, which later would be settled in court.
“Mom—” the offended party would begin.
“Write it on the sheet” was my quick and easy reply.
“Yeah, I will!” spouted the indignant plaintiff.
“Mommy, write it down for me,” pleaded my littlest one. She was yet too young to write, but she wanted in on this justice business too.
Court convened the following Sunday after church. The first case was called.
“Case number one,” my husband formally announced. “Niki versus Adam. ‘Adam took the dog away from me.’” The two giggly parties stood before the three remaining family members seated on the living room sofa.
“Niki, since you brought this suit to court, you explain what happened.”
The blank look on her face caught me by surprise.
“I don’t remember” came the almost timid reply. I stole a glance at my husband. Our eyes glistened with glee while our faces maintained a magisterial air of pretended sternness.
“Case dismissed. Lack of evidence,” my husband ruled in impassive monotone. The two litigants took their seats on the sofa.
“Case number two. Adam versus Emily. ‘Emily came into my room and broke my toy.’” Adam and Emily promptly stood front and center. “Tell us about this, Adam.”
He came forth with the story. Emily was asked to remain silent while Adam told his side. Then Emily offered her defense, but it was evident that she realized her guilt, and her spirited rebuttal quickly turned weak-hearted. Witnesses to the perpetration were asked to offer corroborating evidence.
The litigants were then asked to go to a bedroom, shut the door, and wait until they were called in to hear the verdict. The jury weighed the evidence and found the defendant guilty. Agreement was reached on appropriate punishment, and the litigants were retrieved from the holding room.
To my surprise, the two came out arm in arm. It seems they had discussed the case and, the verdict being evident to them, had made appropriate apologies. But the punishment was still affixed: Emily would make Adam’s bed for two mornings.
It took more than two hours that first Sunday to get through the two-page docket of offenses. The details of many disputes had been forgotten, and a clever defendant often found no reason to volunteer self-incriminating information.
We kept the court proceedings on file. To the side of the list, we recorded the punishments or warnings. The children were always involved in the decisions. The whole family benefited from the experience, and as parents, we were quick to point out many lessons learned from the trials. For example, the children were surprised at how seemingly monumental incidents quickly paled into insignificance.
We justices stuck to our guns. Once a case was brought to court, the plaintiff could not back out. Sometimes a guilty party who filed a suit detrimental to himself would suddenly want to drop the charges. Tough. One reason the trials went so well was that the kids were always honest. There was never any deliberate deceit during testimony, and usually their own consciences accused them. Occasionally suits were brought against a parent, but the outcome was always just.
The length of the trial list shortened as time went on. I knew that soon our family trials would only be a memory when one morning little Niki came to me in the kitchen, saying, “M-o-m—”
“Go write it down, dear.”
The child hesitated, and I could almost see the wheels of decision turning as she mulled over the consequences. “Oh, never mind … I guess I can solve it myself.”