When kids flop, parents become NBA refs
A few weeks ago, Owen, my 8 year old, was walking through the living room. Stella, my 5 year old daughter, stretched out her leg to trip her up. It wasn’t really subtle. Owen saw the outstretched leg. He could have stepped over it.
But in the Eternal Big Brotherhood playoffs, Owen tried a different tactic. He threw himself in Stella’s leg. He waved his arms. He collapsed on the ground. Owen ended the performance lying on his back and wearing the indignant expression of someone who has been wronged. In other words, he flopped.
Lately I’ve felt less like a daddy than an NBA referee who gets worked up by Jae Crowder or PJ Tucker. Another time Owen was sitting in a chair watching TV. Stella slipped behind him. Now I haven’t seen what Stella did. Parents can be like James Capers in Game 4 of the Final. I guess Owen had a slight pinch or maybe a stroke of love – a common fault in the Curtis house.
Owen sold it by hopping off the chair, staggering across the room, and landing face down on the couch next to me.
“What happened?” I asked.
“She pushed me,” Owen said, sporting the same indignant expression. He wanted me to rate a flagrant 1.
Since then, Owen’s interest in the art of the flop has only grown. He collapses with splayed limbs and pleading eyes and great comedic flair. When kids get into youth basketball, parents think they’re emulating the NBA, or maybe Euro 2020. But Owen hasn’t watched basketball or football much. What he does suggests an interesting idea. The flop is a child’s rite. It looks like the NBA version and happens for the same reasons.
I called Dr. Sally B. Hunter, who teaches Child and Family Studies at the University of Tennessee, and explained the similarities between what I saw in the NBA and what I saw in the House.
“It’s definitely the same,” Hunter said.
“My child is collapsing,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “They totally are.”
About Owen: He has a mop top and flaunts the kind of preteen smile that can only be formed by two new front teeth. “Um, excuse me,” Owen likes to say. It’s a signal that he would like to insert a fact about vertebrate biology or presidential succession into a conversation my wife and I are having about paint colors. Owen likes it Dog Man books and The Mandalorian. Until he began to crumble, he greeted most of Stella’s provocations with a detachment of a Jedi master.
“Detached” isn’t a word I would use to describe Stella. She is engaged, furiously so. Her elbows pump like a cartoon character when she runs. She has a mischievous smile and, like a good comedian, makes sure we can see she wears it.
My wife and I are both only children. So watching a sibling get into a relationship is pretty weird. Sometimes Owen and Stella team up for a moment of benevolence straight out of the redemptive last pages of a Berenstain Bear delivered. More often they argue.
Last week Owen reported, “Stella said, ‘Owen is horrible.’ “
“I said har“Capable,” Stella corrected him.
“She said it! Owen insisted.
“It doesn’t matter,” Stella said. My wife and I said “play” after that one.
As I began to write this column, I heard Owen say that he was going to ban Stella from the Lizard Council, no matter what. He used the word “dismiss”.
The kid flop is a natural outgrowth of this kind of sibling relationship. “It’s adapted to the development of children,” said Hunter. One way to understand it is to look at the work of the late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, a true pantheon guy in the study of child development. Piaget argued that young children understand punishment in terms of retribution.
Say you are 8 years old. Your sister hugs you on the arm. One way to ask for retaliation is to retaliate. Another way is to dive in front of your parents, your personal umpires, to make sure your sister gets punished.
“Your 8-year-old is going to be very menstruated,” said Dr. Yann Poncin of the Yale Child Study Center. “The rules are a certain way and you follow the rules.”
The flop is a physical announcement that the rules have been broken, a variation of the usual yaps of “Mo-mmy! “And”Da-dad! “Stella’s outstretched leg may have been a pre-crime act. That kind of distinction hardly matters to children. When Stella attacks her brother, she likes to say” He deserves it. “What she seems to be saying , it is, “He deserves it for the unreasonable act of being my big brother.”
Dr Oscar Gerdner, Poncin’s colleague at Yale, noted that the kid flop is also a way to get “the attention of caregivers.” Children (and their parents) do a lot of things to get attention. “The confidence you get from a parent really strengthens kids, which means it really inspires them to engage in this behavior,” Gerdner said.
The kid flop is a time of loss for a parent. If you point out that a flop violates all known laws of physics, the kid gets attention. Sometimes the child is smiling, like an NBA player who knew he wasn’t going to draw that accusation. The kid won, whatever the call.
What’s fascinating is how the kid flop looks like the NBA version. Let’s say Stella pinches Owen very hard. Owen screams and rubs his arm. If Stella hands out a lighter he deserves it, Owen has the same reaction.
I can’t read his mind. But it looks like he’s trying to figure out the fewest contacts who will get a call. As Poncin noted, “Either way, it’s two hits.”
In May, Chris Paul complained about losing 11 straight playoff games under Scott Foster. The children also discover the differences between the referees. As Hunter told me, “They’ll be like, ‘Does this work with different adults? Oh, I tried this on daddy and it got my sister in trouble last night. Let me try it on mom today.
Most parents have less interest in calling fouls than NBA referees. At the end of a long summer day, parents look like the ’50s sitcom character we swore we’d never be. We say things like, “Can’t you fix this yourself? (Reader, they can’t.)
Poncin suggested that basketball contains a metaphor for parental intervention. In a pickup game, players call their own faults and figure out how to get along. In the NBA, they look to the referees for these things.
Parents want to be authority figures. But parents don’t want to be forced to make constant calls, to sort out real faults from exaggerated faults. We want the kids to play pickup ball a lot.
As children grow up, theorized Jean Piaget, they trade the idea of retribution for restitution. How can we get along? But in the adult world, the flop isn’t limited to the NBA. Twitter is falling apart. Recognize that I have been messed up! Give me free throws! If you knocked out the Twitter flop, you would end up with wired news quotes without context, pictures of Americans wearing English football kits and “some personal news.”
I came to love the kid flop as I learned to watch Crowder and Tucker play basketball. The kid flop is pure imagination. It is opportunism. It can be really funny. A few days ago, I heard Owen say, “Mom, Stella threatened to cut my head in half.”
If either of us had been nearby, Owen could have hit the bridge to sell the foul. Normally I try not to be an insufferable father. Allow me this exception. I have an 8 year old who is beautiful and shiny and has a knack for flopping. And someday this kid is going to sign a supermax extension.