A few weeks ago, Owen, my 8-year-old, was walking across the living room. Stella, my 5-year-old, stuck out her leg to trip him. It wasn’t exactly subtle. Owen saw the outstretched leg. He could have stepped over it.
But in the eternal postseason of big-brotherdom, Owen tried a different tactic. He threw himself into Stella’s leg. He flailed his arms. He collapsed on the floor. Owen ended the performance lying on his back and wearing the outraged expression of someone who has been wronged. In other words, he flopped.
Lately, I’ve felt less like Dad than an NBA referee being worked over by Jae Crowder or P.J. Tucker. Another time, Owen was in a chair watching TV. Stella snuck up behind him. Now, I didn’t see what Stella did. Parents can be like James Capers in Game 4 of the Finals. I figure Owen got a light pinch or maybe a love tap—a common foul in the Curtis household.
Owen sold it by springing out of the chair, staggering across the room, and landing facedown on the couch next to me.
“What happened?” I asked.
“She pushed me,” said Owen, wearing the same outraged expression. He wanted me to assess a flagrant 1.
Since then, Owen’s interest in the art of flopping has only grown. He flops with splayed limbs and pleading eyes and great comic flair. When kids hit the deck in youth basketball, parents figure they’re imitating the NBA, or perhaps Euro 2020. But Owen hasn’t watched much basketball or soccer. What he’s doing suggests an interesting idea. Flopping is a rite of being a kid. 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 was seeing in the NBA and seeing at home.
“This is definitely the same thing,” said Hunter.
“My child is flopping,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “They totally are.”
About Owen: He has a mop top and flashes the kind of preadolescent smile that can only be formed by two new-ish front teeth. “Um, excuse me,” Owen likes to say. That’s a signal he’d like to wedge a fact about vertebrate biology or presidential succession into a conversation my wife and I are having about paint colors. Owen loves the Dog Man books and The Mandalorian. Until he started flopping, he greeted most of Stella’s provocations with Jedi-master detachment.
“Detached” isn’t a word I’d use to describe Stella. She’s engaged, furiously so. Her elbows pump like a cartoon character when she runs. She wears an impish grin and, like a good comedian, makes sure we can see she’s wearing it.
My wife and I are both only children. So watching a brother and sister forge a relationship is pretty weird. Sometimes, Owen and Stella join forces for a moment of kindness straight out of the final, redemptive pages of a Berenstain Bears book. More often, they argue.
Last week, Owen reported: “Stella said, ‘Owen is horrible.’”
“I said har-able,” Stella corrected him.
“She said it!” Owen insisted.
“It doesn’t count,” Stella said. My wife and I said “play on” after that one.
As I started to write this column, I heard Owen say he was going to banish Stella from the Lizard Council, whatever the hell that is. He used the word “impeach.”
The kid flop is a natural outgrowth of that kind of sibling relationship. “It’s developmentally appropriate for children,” said Hunter. One way to understand it is to look at the work of the late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, a real pantheon guy in the study of child development. Piaget contended that younger children understand punishment in terms of retribution.
Say you’re 8 years old. Your sister slugs you in the arm. One way to seek retribution is to hit back. Another way is to take a dive in front of your parents, your personal referees, to make sure your sister gets punished.
“Your 8-year-old is going to be very rule-bound,” said Dr. Yann Poncin of the Yale Child Study Center. “The rules are a certain way and you follow the rules.”
Flopping is a physical announcement that the rules have been broken, a variation on the usual yelps of “Mo-mmy!” and “Da-ddy!” Stella’s outstretched leg may have been an act of pre-crime. That kind of distinction barely matters to kids. When Stella attacks her brother, she likes to say “He deserves it.” What she seems to be saying is, “He deserves it for the unconscionable 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 “caregiving attention.” Kids (and their parents) do lots of things to get attention. “The reassurance that you get from a parent is really reinforcing for kids, meaning that it really kind of incentivizes them to do that behavior,” said Gerdner.
The kid flop is an either-way-you-lose moment for a parent. If you point out that a flop violates every known law of physics, the kid gets attention. Sometimes, the kid is smiling, like an NBA player who knew he wasn’t going to draw that charge. The kid has won, regardless of the call.
What’s fascinating is how closely the kid flop resembles the NBA version. Let’s say Stella pinches Owen really hard. Owen howls and rubs his arm. If Stella doles out a lighter, he-deserves-it pinch, Owen has the same reaction.
I can’t read his mind. But it seems like he’s trying to figure out the least amount of contact that will get a call. As Poncin noted, “Either way, it’s two shots.”
In May, Chris Paul grumbled about losing 11 straight playoff games that were officiated by Scott Foster. Kids also suss out the differences between referees. As Hunter told me, “They’ll be like, ‘Does this work with different adults? Oh, I tried this on Dad and it totally 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 do. At the end of a long summer day, parents sound like the 1950s sitcom character we swore we’d never become. We say things like, “Can’t you guys settle this yourselves?” (Reader, they cannot.)
Poncin suggested that basketball contains a metaphor for parental intervention. In a pickup game, players call their own fouls and figure out how to get along. In the NBA, they look to the referees for those things.
Parents want to be authority figures. But parents don’t want to be put in the position of having to make constant calls, to sort out real fouls from exaggerated ones. We want kids to play a lot of pickup ball.
As children get older, Jean Piaget theorized, they trade the idea of retribution for restitution. How can we come to an understanding? But in the adult world, flopping isn’t confined to the NBA. Twitter is flopping. Recognize that I’ve been fouled! Give me free throws! If you eliminated flopping from Twitter, you’d be left with context-free cable news quotes, pictures of Americans wearing English soccer kits, and “some personal news.”
I’ve come to love the kid flop like I’ve come to enjoy watching Crowder and Tucker play basketball. The kid flop is pure imagination. It’s opportunism. It can be really funny. A few days ago, I heard Owen say, “Mommy, Stella threatened to slice my head in half.”
If one of us had been nearby, Owen might have hit the deck to sell the foul. Normally, I try not to be an insufferable dad. Allow me this one exception. I have an 8-year-old who is beautiful and brilliant and has a knack for flopping. And one day, that kid is going to sign a supermax extension.