09/24/2007 11:46 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Dodgeball Dilemma

In our family, the game of dodgeball has become a kind of moral and ethical
template by which we judge people's character.

It all started with my nephew Collin at a family dinner. We were grilling
him about a kid his age, someone we vaguely knew. "He's an OK guy,"
answered my nephew, thoughtfully chewing his burger. "But he cheats at

We got it. We all got it. Dodge ball, a game we all played in the summer,
had become the arbiter of whether or not someone was a decent human being at
their core, honest and ethical.

For those of you who don't know, the game of dodge ball has made a comeback.
There are even college teams. It's kindler and gentler now and much more PC
than when I was in middle school. You don't try to nail the chubby girl in
the back row who eats paste or the kid with duct tape on his glasses who
picks his nose.

Dodge ball is a process of elimination; a survival of the fittest. It
begins with organized chaos as two teams square off with dozens of balls
being hurled in the air. Unlike baseball or basketball, where all eyes are
on the person who has the ball, dodge ball has dozens of balls all flying
around at the same time with the goal of nicking any body part below the
neck. If you get hit, you are out. Pure and simple. In the craziness of
the first few minutes, it is often one person's word over another's. This
means it is largely up to the individuals to police themselves.

There are those that get hit and try to get away with it. There are some
who fight the call when challenged. Others give in and slyly slink off when
called on the carpet. And then there are those who immediately come clean
when they've been hit. Even when no one is watching, they pull themselves
out of the game and onto the sidelines.

As a parent, I aspire to raise one of those kids. Oh, I'm well aware that
cheating at dodgeball doesn't mean a kid is destined to a life of robbing
banks, kiting checks or pulling the legs off flies. But I found it
interesting that my own nephew had arrived at the dodgeball test on his
own. I like the fact that one teen could identify a kind of touchstone to
determine the stuff of which his peers were made.

I recently watched an R-rated movie with my daughter and two of her friends.
It was mostly inappropriate humor but I made sure to ask both kids if this
was OK with their parents. I was impressed when each girl wanted to call
their mothers to double check.

When I commented to my daughter about how wonderful it was that her friends
did this, she immediately jumped on me. "Mom, I have never seen an R-rated
movie ever. And I would always ask you first," she huffed defensively. OK,
she passed the dodgeball test on that one.

The dodge ball test may be one little marker, one silly way we can look at
an element of a person's character. But cheating at dodge ball is just one
of many small but critical transgressions I see today that we need to remain
vigilant about when it comes to our kids. So many of life's little lessons
are being lost in our haste to be "friends" with our kids, or unnaturally
force our lives to be completely "kid-centric" (a term that makes the hairs
on my forearm stand up).

By being afraid of drawing too many boundaries, we are letting slide a lot
of opportunities to teach good old-fashioned citizenship and manners. Like
the dodgeball test, we can all be judged by an aggregate of the little
things; respect for the elderly, giving up your seat on the train, looking
people in the eye, delivering a firm handshake. As parents, we get sick of
nagging about these things, but in the end, their presence or absence tells
us something about an individual. I have a warm spot in my heart for a
young man who calls me Ma'am, even though it makes me sound like an ancient

I want my children to understand that there are consequences for actions.
That means we need to follow through with our threats, not make the hollow
remarks I hear screamed at kids in the grocery store aisles.

There is a famous parenting story about a family traveling to Disney World.
Maybe you know this one, although I wouldn't be surprised if it is an urban
myth. Exasperated by the dreaded "when will we be there" question, the
parents told the kids if they asked one more time, they wouldn¹t be able to
go to Disney World. Legend has it when little Johnny broke the rule, they
stuck to their guns. They had to. The miserable parents went to the park
by themselves all day, hiring a sitter for the kids in the hotel room.

I know I sound just like the grandmas of a generation before, cluck-clucking
at that hip-swivelin' rock'n'roll music. Or, heaven forbid, I sound like
Tipper Gore sounded to me in the 80s about record lyrics, until I had my own
kids and listened to some of the misogynist bondage rap stuff on the radio
one day. I began to channel Tipper Gore that day, taking back everything I
had ever muttered about her and freedom of speech.

When we lived in Phoenix in 1995, in the span of two weeks I left my wallet
on top of my station wagon twice and drove away. Those were really
exhausting days with two kids under four and a full-time home business. The
second time it happened, I set the wallet on top of the car as I wrestled
both kids into their car seats and then drove away. When I got home, I
realized immediately what I had done and burst into tears.

Lo and behold, the phone rang a few hours later. A man had found the wallet
and he lived 20 minutes away in what I knew to be a somewhat shady
neighborhood. I was making bets that the money was gone and I was furious
with myself because I had just been to the cash machine and withdrawn my
bi-weekly budget. Planning on giving him some of the money in my wallet as
a reward, I also stopped and bought a 12-pack of beer. I figured in his
hood they could all have a little party.

When I rang his bell, clutching my two kids to me in the dark, the man who
answered the door was in flowing robes, with a top knot of hair. I quickly
reached into my limited knowledge of Eastern religions and dimly recognized
that he was a Sikh. As I thrust the beer at him in gratitude, he
practically jumped back in disgust. "We don't drink in our religion," he
said. And my humiliation at my sanctimonious neighborhood profiling was
complete. The wallet was intact, with every dollar accounted for.

One thing I knew for sure. If that man, the one who found my wallet on the
asphalt of the grocery store parking lot, had been tagged out in dodgeball
and nobody saw him? He would have quietly taken himself out to the
sidelines. Can you say the same?