Archive for December, 2007

Morals and Basketball
December 5, 2007

The children of attentive parents receive moral instruction early and often. Whether the context is religious or secular, conservative or liberal, a firm grounding in right and wrong is the first step in growing humans who give to charity and return lost wallets. We started Sam with simple lessons: it is wrong to take other peoples’ toys, wrong to hit Tyler with the See N’ Say, and necessary to “share” whether you want to or not. As he grew into wider social circles and spent more time away from us, it was necessary to teach general good citizenship, such as the inclusion of “yucky” people in groups. After ten years, though, I still worried that once he was out of my sight, he forgot everything he had learned. Little boys are not known for their gentility, and are easily persuaded to participate in anything that looks like fun, from throwing crayon missiles to stomping ants.

Arriving early for volunteer work in Sam’s classroom, I saw a group of fifth graders playing basketball. They were on a blacktop court with two serious looking hoops. Each team had four members, and there were seven boys and one girl in all. Sam didn’t see me, and I enjoyed the opportunity to watch him when he was absorbed in his “work,” running complicated passing drills, high-fiving his teammates when they made a basket, and pounding up and down the black tar until his face was red with exertion. I was impressed that he knew enough to suggest a “pick and roll,” and admired the fastidiousness with which free throws followed fouls. These ten year olds had made rules, and followed them with no referee beyond their mutually agreed-upon sense of right and wrong.

As I walked towards the fence surrounding the court, I heard my son speaking to a smallish boy in a red ski jacket. “Max, we have to have even teams, and we already have four and four, so you can’t be on a team, you have to be a coach.” Max, apparently preferring to be in on the action, planted himself firmly at the base of a basket and began to yell. “That’s not fair!” he spat.
“Its Sam’s ball and he makes the rules” said Andrew.
“Yeah,” added Marcy. “Plus it wouldn’t be fair if one team had five and one team had four.” Max showed no signs that he was persuaded by this logic.

I looked around nervously for a teacher, or a playground monitor to mediate. There was no one, and Max continued stand beneath the basket and fume while the game whirred back into life. I wondered whether I should intervene, and considered what approach would be fairest. First, there was the issue of disciplining other peoples’ children. Did I have to confine my remarks to Sam’s behavior? Should I tell Sam that they should rotate in and out so Max could have a turn? Could I tell Max that he had to accept the rules because he had joined the game late?

As I considered my options, a second girl ran up to Sam from another part of the playground. I saw him nod, and heard him yell to Max that he could play now; the teams would be even. Max stepped away from the basket, swiped at his eyes and nose with his sleeve, and walked over to join his designated team. With no help from me, the drama had ended. As if nothing had happened, Max went to work guarding the unnaturally tall Kevin, and his team cheered him as he blocked a jump shot. I did not need to impose rules or to act as a referee on that blacktop, because the fifth grade morning recess basketball league had created a solid, fair and enviable moral universe. Perhaps we could learn a few things from them.