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The Morality of Dodge Ball

Point of View with Barbara Sumner Burstyn

The Morality of Dodge Ball

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They’re at it again, those stalwart protectors of the safety and well being of our children. In a recent Time magazine article: Scourge of the Playground, the magazine reported that more schools across America are joining the ban on Dodge Ball, saying it's too violent.

The article went on to warn that dodge ball could be an incubator for later aggressive, even violent behavior. "It makes children targets, it can ridicule poor performers or unskilled players, and there’s a coeducational inequity and a chance for injury,” says Bill Volusia county schools' specialist for physical education. In his defence of the game Mr Poniatowski also says it's an opportunity to teach concepts to children like throwing mechanics, catching skills, agility, hand-eye coordination, lateral and forward movement. But Mr Poniatowski and the increasing number of educationists fighting to have the game banned have missed a few salient points about Dodge Ball.

It’s a perfect game for the game of life. The Greeks knew it, they played a form of Dodge Ball known as Trigon and the game has existed in some form ever since. But the enduring nature of Dodge Ball is not because it develops good hand-eye coordination. Dodge Ball has persisted because it’s a game that transcends itself. It’s about far more than one kid aiming and throwing a ball at another. It’s a game of morals. And in the playing; in the choosing and aiming and throwing and hitting and being hit the big truths about life are imparted. Dodge ball is not about playing fair. It’s about getting picked on, about being the underdog and being bullied. But it’s about the sudden opportunity to go from underdog to conqueror (and perhaps without the bully the weak have no opportunity to rise up) to sense the power of the often inevitable turning of tables that characterizes real life in the adult world. And always it’s about making moral choices.

And that’s the real beauty of Dodge Ball. Because once you have that ball in your hand you must make a moral decision. Even the smallest child must confront it – however subconsciously. Do you aim for the weakest child and score a hit or take the risk of going for the bully and his retaliation?

But it’s banning is also about the feminization of childhood activity. As Mr Poniatowski says, Dodge Ball creates a coeducational inequity. In other words; if the girls can’t or won’t play the game then neither should the boys. The very actions of aiming and throwing are male actions and they have their roots in deep male mythology. But it’s as though all male type activities are bad. Most parents figured out early that the simplistic idea of giving boys dolls and girls trucks would reprogram inherent behaviours was no more than feminist propaganda. Of course it didn’t work. Little girls still nurture dolls until they were old enough to realize that nurturing is no longer politically correct just as little boys will still point and fire anything from a chicken leg to a chop stick until they’re old enough to know they’ll incur the wrath of every feminist parent and school board in the country.

But contrary to the accepted wisdom it’s not the now prohibited games such as cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians or the pointing of finger guns or even the drawing pictures of weapons or soldiers that has contributed to the increase of violent and often murderous behaviour among teenage boys. It is among other things, the naiveté and insulation of the world they grow up in that inclines youths to violence. And it is the decrease of genuine physical outlets and the violence without consequence they consume as part of their daily media diet.

In fact we’re over-protecting and infantilising our children, shielding them from all the wrong things, defending them from the scraps and failures and physical pain of ordinary life, extending their childhood and their no-responsibility zones well past the age that previous generations were expected to face and survive.

But this is not the rough and tumble childhood of Norman Rockwell and our parents and grandparents, instead it is a morally undeveloped childhood, cocooned in so many protective layers that when the tides of testosterone rise through a boy he has no moral foundation upon which to base his actions. We’re wrapping them in so much safety were inadvertently creating a generation of bullies with no ability to empathize with the pain of others because they have never experienced their own, except as an angst inside their heads, as a growing malignant fire as they sit at their keyboards or in front of their video screens, the testosterone surging with no legitimate outlet.

And despite the contemporary belief that life, like modern warfare, should be free of collateral damage, the potential for damage exists in all that we do, in every decision we make. But by shielding a child, male or female from the violence inherent in us all, from the opportunity to confront the bully in us all through the relative safety of Dodge Ball, we’re not making the world safer or less violent, we’re simply forcing violence further underground and removing the opportunity for kids to grow moral muscles. Mr Poniatowski and all his educational expert chums should forget about building strong arms and concentrate instead on building strong minds. Let the kids play Dodge Ball. Let them learn about the reality of life, the only way, and the hard way.

© Barbara Sumner Burstyn, June 2002

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