I was recently listening to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” with my kids for the fifth time in an hour. It’s a great song and also the first a cappella song to reach No. 1. Yes, it’s a cappella! Amazing, right? I could swear there’s a bass, some kind of percussion and perhaps a flute in there. Nope. I suppose most people learned that in 1988 when the song came out, but I was 9 years old then and had not yet acquired the knack for retaining useless trivia.
But back to when I was recently listening to Bobby McFerrin. The song now has a special place in my heart because the lyric “The landlord say your rent is late/he may have to litigate” prompted the following question from my five year-old son:
“What does ‘litigate’ mean?”
So, dear readers, how would you explain that to a 5 year old?
My initial explanatory foray started with words like “court,” “judge,” and “lawyer.” I might as well have tossed him a thesaurus and told him to figure it out himself.
I had to simplify it. I came up with something like this:
Sometimes two people disagree about something important and can’t decide who is right. So they each write down on paper why they think they’re right. They go to a place called a courthouse and give their papers to the people who work there. Eventually, someone called a “judge” reads what they wrote on their papers, listens to what the people have to say, and decides who is right.
Sometimes, instead of a judge, six or twelve other people will listen and vote on who is right. And sometimes, a person called a “lawyer” will do the writing and talking so that the people who disagree don’t have to. That’s what daddy does at work. “Litigate” is just a big word for all of that.
“Oh,” my son replied.
“Do you understand?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
I was pleased with myself for condensing all of civil litigation into a few sentences and I was happy to learn that one of my kids was finally mature enough to understand a little bit about what I do to put food on the table. I’d reached a new landmark in fatherhood.
A few days later, my son and I heard “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” again.
“Do you remember what ‘litigate’ means?” I asked.
“No,” he said.