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How to Cross Examine Your Child

After twenty years of cross-examining drug kingpins, murderers, and gang members as a prosecutor, and street cops, homicide investigators and informants as a defense attorney, I have finally had to face my toughest assignment:  that bundle of high-energy emotions, opinions and misdirection known as a teenaged daughter.  I have been cross-examining my children for years, trying to get to the truth about who hit whom first, who made a mess in the kitchen, or who spilled the Slurpee on the back seat of the minivan.  A teenager brings it to a whole new level though.  I have had to up my game.  Parents may throw their hands up in frustration trying to find out what is going on with their teens, but there are some techniques borrowed from trial law that work…

 

First, know exactly what you want to ask, and exactly what you are trying to get the child to admit.  Once you have that admission, move into your closing argument and verdict:  the punishment or reprimand that you are imposing.  Prosecutors are taught to “get concessions, not confessions” during cross examination.  This means that if the questioning is about whether the teen stayed up until four in the morning on her phone, you must only ask about this one event and stop when you have established it.  Once you have finished with the questioning, announce your verdict, for example: “since you stayed up too late on your phone, we are taking it away for a week.”  Don’t try to get the child to agree with the punishment or ask rhetorical questions, such as: “do you know what will happen if you stay up this late every night?”  Focus on getting exactly the specific answer you need to announce the verdict, nothing more.

Second, use short one-fact questions that require a yes or no answer.  This is called leading the witness. Basically, you make the statement and get the witness to agree with it.  If a witness wants to avoid answering a question, it will be much easier if the question contains several topics.  Watch how the parent loses control by using a question that is too complicated.

Incorrect:

              Parent:                When I told you not to stay on your phone too long, why did you not listen?

              Teen:                  You didn’t tell me that yesterday.

              Parent:                Yes, I did.

              Teen:                  I don’t remember that.  You never told me how late I could talk.

              Parent:               It doesn’t matter when I said it.  You should listen.

              Teen:                  I do listen, but you didn’t say it – you don’t even remember!

In this example, the parent has completely lost control of the witness.  The child has managed to remove the focus from her own specific act, staying on the phone, to the parent’s actions and whether the parent’s rule even exists. 

Trial lawyers have tricks to keep the focus on the question.  My favorite is just to repeat the question three times.  The exact same question. The question must have one simple fact and require a yes or no answer.  It cannot be judgmental or rhetorical.  If the witness does not answer yes or no after being asked three times, simply state that you are not getting an answer to the question, and that you are imposing a consequence for the behavior.

Watch how much more effective the questioning is when you use leading questions:

              Parent:               You stayed on your phone until four last night, didn't you?

              Teen:                  How come you never ask (other child) how long she was on her phone?

              Parent:                You stayed on your phone until four last night, didn't you?

              Teen:                   I didn’t even get to talk all day!

              Parent:                You stayed on your phone until four last night, didn't you?

              Teen:                   Why do you always try to ruin my self-esteem by treating me like a baby?

              Parent:               (closing argument and verdict):  Ok, I asked you if you were on your phone until four last night.   This is a yes or no question.  I asked you three times, and you refused to answer.  Therefore, I have concluded that you were.  I gave you a chance to explain, but you did not.  Therefore, you are losing your phone for a week.

The third and final point to remember:  if you argue, you lose.  Keep control of the witness.  You can win a cross examination, but nobody wins an argument.  A cross examination is a procedure to get an answer to a question.  It is used to force a witness to acknowledge a specific point.  In the alternative, it is used to show that the witness refuses to answer.  In court, witnesses try to confuse their questioners with irrelevant, emotional outbursts.  I do not have to tell parents that children do the same.  By keeping control of questioning, a parent can make a child admit to infractions and accept the consequences without starting an argument.  Although it may be awkward at first, using questioning techniques like the ones above can help parents communicate without arguing.  Please note that this article has been sealed off from anyone under the age of 18, so parents have the advantage until the kids learn how to hack into it.  Good luck!