The Cookie Thief: Explaining Court to a 4 Year Old

17 Jul

“So,” said my neighbor’s 4 year old after he was done “fishing” in the fountain in our park. “Fishing is easy work if you’re good at it like me. You just watch the fish, put your fishing pole in near the fish you want, and it pops on! Then you put it back so someone else can have a turn.”  (His fish are magnetized…)  “I can teach you to fish and you can teach me about the journey thing you’re doing.”

“You mean jury duty?  Being in a courthouse?”

“Yeah, the journey duty.”

“Ok.  Well, sometimes people do bad things but they get caught, right?”


“Like if you hit your brother in front of your family, everyone saw you hit him, so you get in trouble, right?”

“Yes. Then I get a time out. But sometimes I hit him when we’re playing and they don’t see. But then he tells them. Or sometimes I feel bad and I tell them.”

“Exactly.  But sometimes a crime (something bad that is against the rules of where we live) happens and no one sees it happen. So even though people know something happened, they don’t know who did it. Or they think they know who did it but that person chooses to lie and not tell the truth.”

“I don’t know.”

“Ok…so your Mom goes grocery shopping one afternoon and buys a package of cookies. And she tells you and your brother not to eat them, they are for a special treat that evening. Then she puts them away in the cupboard. But a very short while later, she opens the cupboard and sees that the package is opened and some cookies are missing. So she knows that someone took cookies, she just doesn’t know who.”

“So the missing cookies is the crime?”

“Yes. And next she needs to find out who took the cookies, who disobeyed the rules. Because if you took them, it wouldn’t be fair to punish your brother. And if your brother took them, it wouldn’t be fair to punish you. Right?”

“Right. If I wasn’t bad, I would be upset to have a timeout.”

“So she asks both of you but you both say the same thing: ‘I didn’t do it.’ So she has to look at the evidence next.”

“What’s evidence?”

“Stuff that is truth or facts that might be helpful in finding out who did the bad thing. Like: at 4pm, there were no missing cookies.  At 4:30 pm, there were missing cookies.  That’s a fact.  And the only people in the house were your Mom, you, your brother, and the dog.  That’s another fact.  Can a dog jump on a countertop, open a cupboard, and steal 2 cookies and leave the rest alone?”

(Giggling) “No, silly!”

“So the only suspects, the people who could have done the bad thing, are you and your brother because your Mom didn’t steal her own cookies and your dog couldn’t do it. Right?”


“When something big and bad happens, sometimes you need a lot of people to listen to the evidence and then decide who did the bad thing. Sometimes you can tell who did the bad thing and sometimes there isn’t enough facts. And there are people called lawyers, they ask the questions and they explain the story so that the other people, the jurors, can try to decide what happened.  And then there are witnesses, like your Mom. They are the people who saw the bad thing happen or discovered the bad thing and they are the ones who tell the story and the lawyers are the ones who ask them questions in case they forget part of the story or don’t remember all the details.”

“That’s a lot of people.”

“Yes, when people don’t tell the truth, it gets very complicated.”

“So the lawyer asks my Mom questions?”

“Yes.  The lawyer asks her to describe what time she put the cookies away, and where she put them, and was she sure that all the cookies were there. Then your Mom explains that she went back to look at the cookies and some were missing. And then they look at more evidence, the facts, to help them figure out what happened even though no one saw it happen except for the cookie thief.  So here are the facts in this story:

– Your Mom says there were cookie crumbs on your clothes, and there was chocolate near your mouth and on your hands. And the cookies that were missing were chocolate chip ones.

– Your brother says that you were playing outside with him but that you went inside to the bathroom so he didn’t see you for the whole time before the cookies went missing.

– Your Mom says she heard a sound, like a chair being pushed across the kitchen floor.

So the jurors listen to this story and these details and they decide that they think your Mom and brother were both telling the truth. They put all the pieces of the puzzle together and decide that you went inside to use the bathroom but pushed a chair up against the kitchen counter, climbed on the counter, opened the cookies, and ate some. That’s why you have crumbs and chocolate on you.”

“But they didn’t see me do it.”

“No, but they are very very sure. Because where else would you get chocolate chip crumbs from?”

“Do they always figure out the story? Did you figure out the story?”

“No, sometimes they can’t figure out the story. Or they don’t have enough evidence because you washed your hands and mouth and brushed off your clothes before your Mom and your brother saw you. If that happens, they aren’t allowed to just say “He did it!” to be mean. They have to tell the truth, that they don’t know how the story goes.”

“That’s a lot of work. Why don’t people just tell the truth and then you don’t have to do this? And you can trust them and tell them ‘That wasn’t good. No more stealing cookies because then there aren’t enough to share.'”

Pretty sure he will make a great citizen someday. And pretty sure I’m not ready to handle the constant “Why?” of children yet…this conversation only took 10 minutes and I was exhausted by the end of it.



One Response to “The Cookie Thief: Explaining Court to a 4 Year Old”

  1. Sarah Hussey July 30, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    That’s great Liz! I need you to come and live with us so that you can help answer all of Jonathan’s questions 😛 I love your analogy… Very easy for a child to understand! It sounds like your neighbor is a smart little boy 🙂

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