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What can I tell my kids about Deflategate?

The NFL is investigating whether the Patriots deflated footballs that were used in their AFC championship game victory over the Colts. Matt Slocum/AP

Jeff Wagenheim and Katharine Whittemore were founding editors at the innovative parenting magazine Wondertime. Whittemore now writes the “Seven Books About. . . ” book review column for the Boston Globe. Wagenheim writes for Sports Illustrated and the Globe (covering sports and the arts) -- and wants it known that, as a Giants fan, he’s neutral on Deflategate.

What can a parent tell a child who’s a big Patriots fan and now is hearing that the team may have been caught cheating?

JEFF: Before you build a bonfire in the backyard and toss in your family’s Tom Brady jerseys and Bill Belichick hoodies, consider how lucky you are to not be dealing with this parental quandary in a vacuum. If you’re a New England fan of a certain age, you might find guidance in how your parents approached the issue with you when the Pats were called cheats on a snowy day in Foxborough back in 1982, when a plow came on the field and conveniently cleared the spot from which kicker John Smith then hit a game-winning field goal. If that was before your time, maybe you have older kids with whom you had to address the 2007 scandal in which the Patriots were fined for illicitly videotaping the Jets’ sideline play signals. (The Jets! Do you really have to cheat to beat the Jets?) The point is, this isn’t the first time the Pats have cast an unflattering light on themselves, and even if your kids are too young to know the history, that can play into how you approach it with them.

The Patriots’ checkered past can serve as a cautionary tale. Whenever I’ve caught my kids cheating at something, I’ve told them, “That’s not a reputation you want to have. People will assume the worst.” Look what happened to the Pats in their first playoff game, a week before this controversy arose over deflated footballs: Baltimore coach John Harbaugh also accused them of playing fast and loose with the rules. Without going into the intricacies of the X’s and O’s involved, I’ll just note that Belichick was designing plays that were within the rules but unlike anything the NFL had seen. So he was being an innovator, not a cheater. But because of his reputation, red flags were raised. There’s a lesson in that for kids. Once you’re labeled a cheat, everything you do becomes scrutinized, not always fairly.


KATHY: Yes, the precedents are what’s killing us here, right? And I’d say that much ouch requires the couch. If the Pats were in family therapy (and I’m happy to refer them!), they’d learn a concept known as the Trust Bank. A child builds trust by making “deposits” in the Trust Bank by, say, walking the dog when it’s her turn, finishing her homework, etc. A parent might build trust by being on time for school pickup, or reading to his child every night at bedtime, rather than take a work call. Conversely, if there are too many withdrawals -- the child always claims the teacher “really doesn’t care” if their math gets done, the parent always says they just had to take that call -- trust is lost and accounts are drained. On this basis, the Pats are close to being overdawn. Even if they did nothing wrong in Deflategate, their Trust Bank is low because of Spygate.


Those “gates,” of course, come from the original scandal, Watergate. (Nixon, by the way, was a diehard football fan.) I distinctly remember hearing his resignation speech on the radio in August 1974. I was 13, riding in the Pinto of my friend Janey Beller’s parents, and it hit me for the first time that adults in charge can make huge mistakes, can lie, can fall apart. If childhood is marked by successive losses of innocence, that was a pivotal one for me. My high school son tells me his first big loss came in 2007, when he was in third grade, and Barry Bonds was indicted for steroid use. Then came A-Rod, and Lance Armstrong, and on and on.


Doping, deflating, they’re on the same spectrum: taking an unfair, even illegal, action and harming the sports we love, and our children love. I realize that soft footballs are not performance-enhancing drugs or Democrat National Committee break-ins, and the facts aren’t all in, but as parents we once again have to be ethicists. Remember when the only “gate” we worried about was at the top of the stairs?

JEFF: No, Kathy, I don’t remember those days -- that toddler daze -- from just a decade ago. But I do remember when my daughter grew to the age where she finally could play games with her brother, who’s two years older, and how I thought that was great until I started being called on to be their referee. I was always whistling one of them for cheating. Sibling rivalry being what it was, they simply couldn’t stand to lose to each other. I got it. The stakes were high -- and still are. Having your little sister brag at the dinner table about how she’s just whooped you at backgammon can be tough for an 11-year-old boy to take.


But while I understood, my intervention wasn’t always so enlightened. It could veer toward authoritarian. Let’s just say if that version of me were the Patriots’ dad, they probably would not get to go on that cool trip to Arizona they’ve worked so hard to book. My inclination was to shut down a game at the first sign of cheating. If you aren’t willing to follow the rules, I’d say, why even play?

These days, though, I’m more proactive with my righteousness. I was raised with a life-and-death attitude toward sports, and I’m trying to dial back on that with my kids. When I’m coaching my 9-year-old’s soccer team at practice, I’ll tell the girls we’re going to scrimmage to 5 points but then I might stop the game at 4-4. The players are outraged. They want to win. But I want them to experience what it feels like when winning is not the whole point of playing. For one thing, there’s no incentive to cheat.

KATHY: But did you deflate the soccer ball, Jeff? That’s what I want to know. And though sports prompted our conversation about cheating, for most kids the temptation will lie in academics.


According to nocheating.org, the practice peaks in middle school; just over 60 percent of students reported cheating on exams and 90 percent admitted to copying another student’s homework. There’s less in high school, but the stakes are higher. The kicker stat is this, though: Only 34 percent of parents talk to their kids about cheating because (ahem) they think their kids don’t cheat.

I think those parents have forgotten those same kids were the ones re-throwing the dice in Parcheesi (“because the first roll didn’t count”). There’s a reason T. Berry Brazelton’s famous parenting book, “Touchpoints,” includes one touchpoint phase called “Lying, Stealing, and Cheating.” It’s targeted to 3- to 6-year-olds, but some children don’t grow out of it (to the sorrow of the Bonds and Nixon families).

Deflategate brings up so many teachable moments. Kids need to know that no organization is pure, for instance. According to the New York Post, the other Super Bowl team, the Seahawks, leads the league in performance-enhancing drug suspensions. And it’s important to emphasize that people (or teams) shouldn’t be defined by their worst actions. The Barry Bonds Family Foundation helps fund outreach programs for African-American youth in San Francisco. Nixon opened China. But let’s not be patsies about the Pats: If they cheated, they must be held accountable. Any other scenario is just too deflating.

Send your parenting questions to Globe.parenting@gmail.com and it might be picked for this column.