- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

When the weather, my aging body and family considerations permit it, I occasionally play in pickup basketball games at the end of my street with the neighborhood teen-agers. I frequently am the only WASPish person on the court and most certainly the only one over the age of 18 or 19 I'm more than twice as old as many of the players.

I get by because I hustle and have some marginal basketball skills. Also, while most of the teens have a clearly superior physical edge, when it comes to the game of basketball and what it takes to win how can I put this delicately? they stink.

For the most part, the games are "incident-free" except for the usual trash-talking and posturing. One day recently, however, I noticed a man about my age stalking toward the court, eyes glittering with anger. He clearly was not dressed for basketball. I began to worry.

He walked past the game, picked up a stray basketball lying in the grass and shouted at one of the younger players to "stay the hell out of my yard." Apparently, the basketball was his.

The player didn't refute the implication of larceny but told the man not to curse at him again or there would be trouble. His older brother, who also was playing in the game, said the same thing.

The man walked away, shouting, "He's a little thief," with the older brother saying, "Don't curse at him again. You got your basketball, man. Don't curse at him again or there's gonna be trouble."

The rest of us did what customarily happens in such situations we purposefully looked away but I couldn't get the incident out of my mind as the game continued. I was struck by the older brother's refusal to address the charge itself. He didn't turn on his younger brother and demand, "Is this true?" There was just the tacit admission by both that the theft or "borrowing" had indeed taken place. Neither one denied it.

The second thing that struck me was that both brothers apparently had no problem with the man calling the younger brother a thief to his face, but both had a big problem with the word "hell," which they probably hear about 3,500 times a day.

The third thing that struck me was how, in the brothers' eyes, everything was "even" because the man had gotten his basketball back. It reminded me of how the Clintons stressed that Hugh Rodham had returned the money he had gotten for helping arrange those presidential pardons, as if that wiped the slate clean for everybody.

I thought about all of this because my wife, Lisa, and I are re-evaluating the way we parent 4-year-old Sean and 21-month-old Jeremy, courtesy of a book and video series we discovered at church called "Shepherding Your Child's Heart," by Tedd Tripp.

Skipping all the theology, the book can be summed up by the concept that parenting should focus on a child's heart, not his behavior, which so often is the issue for many parents, including Lisa and me. In other words, parenting tends to revolve around what a child does rewarding the good things and punishing the bad. Mr. Tripp argues that parenting instead should focus on why a child is misbehaving and deal with that, not just the shoving on the playground.

As much as we love Sean and Jeremy, we found ourselves doing many of the things described in the book the timeouts, the spankings, the toys and trips to McDonald's for good behavior. All of it was geared toward behavior, producing well-behaved little adults we can tote proudly into any upscale store or restaurant in town and say implicitly, "Look at the parenting number we've done on these guys. Are we good or what?"

None of it went to the character issues behind the actions. No discussions of why pushing, shoving and yelling are bad and why sharing and taking turns are good, beyond, "That's bad; stop it" or, "It's good to share your toys with your friends."

That brings me back to the incident on the basketball court. It's easy to pick on these two brothers and their skewed priorities taking great offense at a mild expletive and not an accusation that goes to the heart of their character. But we've become a nation that judges deeds and not character. It isn't politically correct to judge character, anyway.

Would Lisa and I be different if Sean were accused of stealing or Jeremy accused of hittisng a fellow toddler? Would we be content to leave our disciplining at, "Sean, give that back and don't you ever do that again"?

We probably would have stopped there before we started this study and began to re-evaluate our parenting philosophy.

We definitely won't now.

Mark Stewart is the father of two boys, Sean and Jeremy. He is a staff writer for the Family Times. He can be reached at stewar@twtmail.com.

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