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We live in a lovely subdivision of rolling hills. The parking lot of the neighborhood pool at the top of our block is the only relatively flat patch. I take the kids up once in a while so the girls can ride their bikes in a circle. Connor often comes along to take shots at the basketball hoop on the side of the lot. I drag along a beach chair, sit in the sun and watch the show.

A couple of days ago, our trip to the lot gave me the opportunity to watch a fascinating, age-old dance — the passive-aggressive kabuki play of middle schoolers exploring interpersonal ethics on the fly.

As Connor (12) dribbled the ball around the corner and entered the lot, a complication came into view. Three other middle schoolers were sitting on the curb by the basket — not under the basket, but juuuust off to the left, 5-6 feet from the drop zone. They saw Connor, paused for that telling second, then continued talking to each other. Connor also saw them, stopped dribbling for juuuust that telling second, then continued toward the hoop.

Anyone who thinks they greeted each other and proceeded to work out the emerging conflict of interest has neither met nor been a middle schooler. Neither did they come to blows. The three continued to sit, passively asserting one of the oldest and dodgiest rights in legal history (known various as squatter’s rights, “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” “I Was Here First,” or “You Can’t Make Me”) and silently daring the Boy to infringe on that right.

The Boy, on the other hand, was silently countering with the Greater Need principle, also known as “You Can Easily Slide Over, but This is the Only Hoop.” Both sides were relying on the obviousness of their respective claims.

He began shooting. The three continued talking as if basketballs were not landing inches from them. Connor did the best shooting of his life, since each successful two-pointer went straight down and could be recovered with a quick lunge before it brought things to a head (so to speak). At last one shot hit the rim and went wide left. Three heads ducked. Still no eye contact, though Connor smiled nervously as he ran for the errant ball (preparing himself for the “Heh heh, isn’t this a funny situation we’re all enjoying” defense).

Push, for some reason, never came to shove. After ten minutes and no ball-squatter contact, the girls were ready to go home, and we all did.

It’s interesting to guess what would have happened if someone had actually taken a ball to the head. Since both sides were showing a lack of common sense, outrage over the other’s failure to see what had been the “obvious” solution tends to be the only remaining option for both sides. Instead, it was middle school kabuki to the end.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.