For most of my adult life, I have had my most important conversations around breakfast time. This seems to point to one of two possibilities: first, the restful sleep from the previous night has allowed me to start the new day with a fresh mind; or second, the effect of coffee brewed in my French Press is so caffeine-laden that my mind is on the cutting edge of stimulus. I’m opting for the second choice, considering I haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep since September of 1993.
One morning a few days ago was no exception. I was trying to explain the American government system of checks and balances to my fifteen-year-old son, Athanasius. I explained to him that the legislative, judicial, and executive entities work together to provide a system in which no one branch wields too much power. In the course of this, I was trying to find some kind of analogy that would help him understand this concept more clearly. Then it struck me: my family is a system of checks and balances.
Proudly, I am the executive branch. My wife, Lisa, would also constitute the executive branch, but she freely chooses to represent the legislative branch of our family. I think her public school education has made her a rebel: I think she has more fun being the check and balance to the executive. She constitutes the legislative branch. And as the framers of our Constitution warned us in the Federalist, whatever precautions are taken, one of the branches would still have the most power. (I’m guessing you’re already ahead of me.) Lisa makes laws which are never overruled by the executive branch.
My children are the judicial branch. Although they possess no formal powers of declaring the unconstitutionality of executive decisions, they nevertheless provide legal opinions of laws and the actions of the executive branch.
As an example, a few days ago, I set my coffee down near the edge of the counter in my kitchen so I could make a waffle. Not unfamiliar to the sight of spills that have taken place under similar conditions, my seven-year-old daughter, Philomena, asked me, “Daddy, why did you put your coffee so close to the edge?”
“I like to live dangerously, Philomena,” I told her.
Philomena thought about this for a minute as she watched me unsuccessfully attempt to pry, scrape, and chisel my waffle off my “non-stick” waffle iron, and then asked me: “Why do you like to live dangerously, Daddy?”
“I’m just kidding, Philomena. I don’t really like to live dangerously,” I responded.
Philomena, exactly replicating not only the words but also the nuance and inflection of her first question, responded: “Daddy, why did you put your coffee so close to the edge?”
You’ve heard it said that the U.S. Constitution is a living document. Well, Philomena is a living check and balance. She respectfully questions the wisdom of the executive branch. This is actually one of the great graces of having children. Most adults are too courteous or polite actually to question the decisions that other adults make. Children aren’t like that at all—they don’t even know how to be like that. An adult might have questioned why I put my coffee so close to the edge, but he never would have asked the second time. Philomena doesn’t let me off so easily—she wants a logical answer.
As I continued the discussion about government with Athanasius, I also realized that not only does our family mirror the branches of government, we also have the equivalent of various government departments.
“Mommy,” I explained, “constitutes most of those departments.” She heads the department of transportation, as she drives the children to baseball practice, ballet recitals, and violin performances. She also serves as the head of the department of agriculture, as she critiques my choices of fruit and vegetables when I return from the supermarket. (I don’t look forward to those brutal inspections.) She’s been in “labor” so many times that she is the honorary head of that department also.
We even have our own version of the Treasury Department. I came to this realization on Easter morning. My one-year-old daughter, Immaculata, is Easter-egg challenged, meaning that after ten minutes of hunting for about ten dozen brightly colored Easter eggs on a newly mown lawn, she was still unable to find any eggs for herself. And on Easter morning, there’s really nothing sadder-looking than an empty Easter basket; except, of course, the expression on the face of the little girl holding it. So I went to speak with my children who had found the candy treasures, and attempt to reason with them.
I encouraged her brothers and sisters that, even though they found the eggs “fair and square,” they should share the eggs with her. To their credit, they saw the charity in this act, and proceeded to provide her with an equal amount of candy from each basket. Even given the family math struggles of which I have previously written, my children can divide Easter candy with a level of precision which an electron microscope can only envy.
Although recognizing the spiritual value in their generosity, my daughter Veronica nevertheless voiced some concern that we had wandered off the free market path. “No, Veronica,” I explained, “You have to understand. Immaculata is too little to fail. We’re still a capitalist family—this is just bailout candy.”