Just Because

A Slate reader contest to identify the definitive laws of childhood.

A few weeks ago my sons (ages 5 and 7) were fighting over copyright law in the back seat of our car. I know this because I was in the front seat at the time and they kept screaming “copyright!” at ever-increasing decibel levels. The disagreement was over a song the little one had just written (working title: “Elmo’s Mom is Sexy”) and that the older one was singing lustily. Harsh words were exchanged. Goldfish were hurled. And then, as swiftly as it had erupted, this legal dispute resolved itself. The little one proclaimed that, as a matter of copyright law, it was permissible to steal someone else’s song—so long as you changed the title. And so for the rest of the (very long) drive home, we were treated to alternating versions of “Elmo’s Mom is Sexy” and “Elmo’s Sexy World.” They are, I repeat, precisely the same tune.

My point in telling this story is that children have an amazingly intuitive grasp of complicated legal rules. And a freakishly inventive ability to improve on them. My first criminal-law professor taught us everything we needed to know about criminal intent by reminding us of the kindergartener’s hierarchy of self-defense. First: “I didn’t do it.” Second: “I did it but I didn’t mean to.” Third: “I meant to do it but I didn’t plan it.” And finally: “I was upset at the time and I promise I won’t do it again.”

And if you’ve ever watched two little girls create rules for how long one of them has to put down the Polly Pocket before the other can pick it up and play with it, it’s clear that kids’ ideas about property and adverse possession are also pretty sophisticated. I have often thought that if environmental lawyers could state anything as eloquently as “she who smelt it, dealt it,” the world might be a far cleaner place.

So perhaps the time has come for an authoritative treatise on the laws of childhood—a kind of First Restatement of Kid Law. To that end, Slate is asking you to send in examples and suggestions of legal doctrines as fashioned by children, ranging from the pragmatic to the preposterous. Then we’ll synthesize it into something they may just teach at the law schools someday.

You can make submissions in as many categories as you like:

  • Kid Torts:He left his Transformer on the counter and it fell on my leg and now I can’t walk! Can I have his Transformer!?
  • Kid Crime:Mom, look! I found this Transformer just lying on the ground at Andrew’s house! I don’t think it belongs to anybody!
  • Kid Property:Baby keeps putting her sippy cup in my cupholder!
  • Kid Evidence:Let’s check Sara’s tongue to see if she finished the blue Nerds.
  • Kid Contracts:Yes, I said you could have the baseball mitt yesterday, but now I changed my mind. Maybe I will change my mind again in six minutes.
  • Kid Criminal Procedure:  But he came into my bedroom!
  • Kid Intellectual Property:  It isn’t really copying from Diary of a Wimpy Kid if I change the pictures.

Et cetera. There are probably also areas of kid law that have no known analogue to adult law. The idea here, as John Roberts might have said 40 years ago, is to include enough detail so future Kid Supreme Court judges will be able to apply legal rules and precedent to provide clear guidance.

We reserve the right to use your name unless you specify otherwise. There will be honor and recognition heaped upon those who offer the best submissions, but—more important—perhaps we can start to clarify, once and for all, who first set the rules of “dare” and “double-dare” and why the rest of us continue to obey them. 

Send entries to slatecontests@gmail.com.

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