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The Dodgeball Test

08/14/2012 02:12 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2012

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

Instantly, we all got it. From that moment on, how you played dodgeball became our family's insider character test.

Since my Ked-clad camp days, dodgeball has enjoyed a resurgence in cool. It's not quite the same bully's nirvana it was in my gym class. You don't try to nail the chubby girl in the back row who eats paste or the nosepicker with knocked knees. Dodgeball is a process of elimination; a survival of the fittest. Initially it's organized chaos, with dozens of balls flying around simultaneously. Get hit anywhere below the neck and you're out. It's pretty black and white. And in the craziness of the game's first few minutes, it can come down to one person's word against another's.

There are the people who get hit and deny it. There are some who challenge the call, and still others who give in and slink off when questioned. And then there are those who do the right thing. Even when no one is watching, they pull themselves out of the game and onto the sidelines.

I aspire to raise one of those kids, the ones who self-police, no matter who is looking. It's hard work to install a moral compass that stays relatively true. You have to be willing to nag and stay the course and remind and nag again. But the payoff is huge.

A few years ago I rented an R-rated movie with my daughter and two of her friends. It was mostly inappropriate humor, bad language and some cheesy violence, but when I saw the rating I made sure to ask both kids if this was OK with their parents. I was impressed when both girls called their mothers to double check. They could have easily lied.

When I complimented my daughter on her friends' stand up nature, she immediately jumped on me. "Mom, I've never seen an R-rated movie ever. And I'd check with you first," she huffed defensively. She'd passed the dodgeball test on that one.

I'm well aware that sneaking R-rated movies or cheating at games aren't gateway activities to cooking meth or serial killing. But doing the right thing starts with emphasizing the minor stuff. It's about being vigilant.

By trying to be our kids "buddies" and shying away from boundaries, too often we let the little things slide. And that means we pass up lots of small but precious opportunities to teach good old-fashioned citizenship and manners. Respect for the elderly, giving up your seat on the train, looking people in the eye, delivering a firm handshake, where else will our children pick these things up? I have a warm spot in my heart for a young man who calls me Ma'am, even though I wasn't raised anywhere near the south.

I want my children to understand that there are consequences for actions. That means we need to follow through with our threats. There is a famous parenting story about a family traveling to Disney World. Exasperated by the dreaded "when will we get there?" question, the parents told the kids if they asked one more time, they wouldn't be able to go to Disney World. When little Johnny broke the rule, they stuck to their guns. The miserable parents went to the park sans kids, hiring a sitter for the hotel room.

Yes, I sound like the grannies of a previous generation, cluck-clucking at that hip-swivelin' rock' n' roll music. Or, heaven forbid, I recall how ridiculous Tipper Gore sounded to me in the 80s calling for music labeling on records, until I had my own kids and really listened to some of the misogynist bondage rap stuff on the radio. I took back everything I'd muttered under my breath about Tipper and freedom of speech that day.

When my children were very little, in the span of three weeks I left my wallet on top of our station wagon twice and drove away. Those were exhausting days with two kids under age four and a home business. The second time it happened, after I'd just replaced all my credit cards and license, I burst into tears at the realization. I'd just been to the cash machine and withdrawn my weekly budget.

The phone rang a few hours later. A man had found the wallet. He lived 20 minutes away in what I knew to be a somewhat sketchy neighborhood. I was making bets that the money was gone. Planning on giving him a reward, I also bought a 12-pack of beer, figuring he could turn the night into a party in his 'hood.

When I rang the bell, 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 beliefs and dimly recognized that he was a Sikh. As I thrust the beer at him in gratitude, he practically recoiled. "We don't drink in our religion," he said. And he proceeded to invite me inside for a cup of tea. My humiliation at my sanctimonious neighborhood profiling was complete. The wallet was intact, with every dollar untouched.

There are basic things we all wish for our kids that include good health, the capacity to love, intelligence and common sense. But I think about some of the other characteristics I hope we've instilled, as they sit on the lip of our nest, poised to fly. My hope is that I've raised kids to be considerate and upstanding, to do the right thing on the sidelines, not just on the 50 yard line in the floodlight's glare. I want them to be the kind of people who would return the wallet with every cent intact. I want them to defend the underdog and play fair, to be the person who takes himself out when he gets hit in dodgeball because the rules apply to all of us, whether or not anyone else is watching.

Follow Lee Woodruff on her Blog at www.leewoodruff.com