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THE TRUTH IS, IT’S HARD TO JUDGE WHEN KIDS ACCUSE EACH OTHER

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"Mama, she poured water in my milk!"

"He was calling me names!!""But she asked for it!"

"I didn't either. No one in their right mind would ask someone to call her a pickle snout!"

How come no one ever told me that having kids meant playing judge and jury? Unless I actually witness whatever dastardly deed two angry kids report, I can never figure out who's telling the truth.

In most families, the child with the most convincing story usually gets acquitted, whether or not he played a leading role inciting the crime. But what this does, I realized early in my career as justice of the peace, is develop good actors. I've long held the theory that no one who ever got an Oscar for good acting was an only child.

This is great for the folks who want their offspring to star in movies when they grow up, but it poses a real problem for the rest of us who dream of having doctors, dentists and psychiatrists in our clan.

So, in an effort to avoid starting my kids walking off toward Hollywood before I can get them enrolled in a good medical school, I've started handing out justice at the scene of the crime. To be more specific, the scene of the crime is wherever the "tattling" occurred, and the maximum sentence goes like this: Whoever tattles gets three days of home confinement. Ditto for whoever gets tattled on.

Of course, to make it really effective, I also take away their phone privileges. This was something I instituted the day my teenage son accused his 12-year-old sister of selling tickets to his home permanent. My daughter swore she couldn't have done it, because her brother had never had a home permanent. But my son swore she did, because four girls he'd been trying to impress for a long time showed up on our doorstep with bags of popcorn in their arms.

As usual, I couldn't tell who was right and who was wrong, so I grounded both kids. I thought things were settled until I heard my daughter plaintively bewailing her fate on the telephone.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Smith," she said, "but I won't be able to come to our Sunday School class party on Friday, because I've been grounded for three whole days."

From the way she said "whole" you would have thought she meant "hole" as in bottomless pit with nothing to eat but bread and water.

Of course, she continued the conversation in the same tone. "Why am I grounded? I'm not really sure, but it has something to do with the fact that my mom can't ever figure out whether or not I've done something wrong."

Sharon Nauta Steele, West Point, is a homemaker, mother of seven and a free-lance writer.