“Excuse me Senior,” my eight-year-old son says, “I’d like another crepe por favor.” He and my six-year-old daughter Arya are sitting at the kitchen counter while we “play restaurant.” My wife Cheri and I meander around the kitchen filling food orders and our wine glasses. We’ve been trying to teach them dining etiquette—which, at their level, only means not eating directly from plates or assaulting each other over the last breadstick.
Part of the game is asking questions and having fun conversation--so, when Finn asks “What’s a trial?”, I’m pleased and Cheri proclaims, “Oooh, good question!”
Arya, who believes herself the keeper of knowledge, is incredulous at Finn’s lack of information and starts to describe a trail.
“Not a trail, a trial!” he blurts out, clearly near the end of his limited civility.
Before I can launch into a challenging explanation, Cheri goes a smarter route: “Remember how we found the wet spot on the carpet yesterday, and daddy thought Ellie had peed but nobody saw her do it?
Both kids nod.
“Okay,” she continues, “let’s have a little trial and decide if Ellie is guilty or not."
“She’s guilty!” Arya declares.
“Wait,” I say. “This is the point. Ellie deserves to have her argument heard.”
“Daddy, that’s silly,” Finn laughs. “She only speaks Dog.”
I nod. “That is why you are going to speak for her and present her defense. Arya will be the prosecutor and argue that she’s guilty. You both need to think of the reasons you’ll use to argue that she is or isn’t guilty.”
Looking pleased, Arya says, “Well that’s easy! Ellie did it so she is guilty.”
“That’s a circular argument,” I say. The kids look at me like I have lobsters crawling out of my ears.”
“We’ll see,” Cheri interjects. “Maybe she’s guilty. Maybe she’s not. That’s why we’re having a trial”
Ellie, lurking beneath the kids’ stools in hopes of crepe fallout, wags her tail. She has no idea that her fate lies in the hands of grubby children.
The trial begins.
Arya delivers her opening statement: “Uh, when we went to bed, the carpet was dry but then when we got up, daddy stepped on Ellie’s pee and said bad words.”
Finn interjects: “Hey! We don’t know if it was Ellie or not.”
“Sustained,” I say. “Strike Arya’s statement from the record.”
The kids look at me blankly. “Never mind, but he’s right Arya. The way you said that assumed Ellie was guilty. That’s not a fair argument. Finn, it’s your turn to respond.”
“Well, um, okay,” he begins fidgeting on his stool, “Uh, it could have been a different animal . . . like maybe a raccoon came in the house and did it. Yeah, I bet a raccoon did it!”
The kids roar with laughter at this, but after a few seconds, Arya’s expression sobers and she asks, “But seriously Finn, how could a raccoon come in the house and pee? The door was shut all night.”
It’s not the argument I would have made against a raccoon slipping quietly upstairs and peeing in my bedroom, but it works.
Finn deflects by saying, “How do you know it was pee? Maybe daddy spilled water and isn’t admitting it!”
I shake my head. “No,” I smelled it. Definitely pee.”
“Well, maybe you did it daddy!”
“Strike that from the record!” I declare again. More blank stares. “Okay, fine, but just assume that it wasn’t any of the four of us.”
Cheri says, “I don’t know Matt . . . you do get up a lot in the night.”
Finn, his expression lighting up with the pleasure of an idea, excitedly says “Okay, well, maybe the door blew open in the night and then the raccoon got in the house.”
Arya furrows her brow. “The door was still shut in the morning! Did the raccoon shut it on his way out? Then sarcastically adds, “Maybe he made himself a sandwich first.”
After more laughter from the kids, Finn tries a new tactic. “There is that big crack under the door. Maybe a beetle came in and peed on the carpet.”
Arya, nearly enraged by this notion, shouts, "A beetle? Are you serious? How could one beetle pee that much?!”
How much do beetles actually pee, I wonder. It's not something I've ever thought about before.
Finn responds, “Uh, well, maybe a beetle football team came and then they all peed in the same spot."
Arya literally falls off her stool laughing and Cheri adds, “This is better than television.”
Finally, under control and reseated, Arya responds, “C’mon dude, that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
I interject, “Arya, that’s a personal attack—a type of logical fallacy.” More blank stares. “It just means no name calling. It’s a cheap move.”
Arya pouts. “Well it was stupid!”
Cheri stifles a laugh behind me.
“Then explain why you think it’s a bad argument, not just call it stupid.”
Finn nods and adds, “Yeah, you stink butt!”
A few minutes later after we’ve cleaned up the broken glass from the brawl, Finn changes tactics. “You know what? I think I remember Ellie wasn’t feeling good. Yeah. I bet she couldn’t help it and nobody knew she wanted out. It wasn’t her fault."
Arya, after a pause, replies, “Um, Finn, what if every dog said they were sick after they went potty on the carpet? Houses would be filled with pee pee pools.”
Finn looks like he's struggling to come up with a rebuttal and I think he’s going concede, when two events suddenly turn the tides of the trial.
First, the music we have streaming shifts to a dramatic, Irish-wake song (bag pipes and all). In a lilting accent, a man sorrowfully sings:
Please don't cry my Mother as you sit by the hearth I will dance your memories with joy in my heart I will go now and pray as I travel this land And live by the lessons you gave
Then, as if on script, Ellie sits beneath Arya’s stool and emits a quiet whine. Though I know she’s only begging for crepe scraps, the effect is compelling.
With bagpipes playing, Ellie pitifully wagging her tail and whining, Arya gravely announces . . . “Not guilty.”