The field has a home run line. Hit the ball past that line and you've hit a home run.
Now this is a friendly game, no one is monitoring that line. So when the ball falls close to the line you have to trust the opposing outfielder to tell you truthfully if the ball landed past the line and was a home run.
Which, for younger kids, is agonizing. They know what they saw (that the ball was a home run) but they don't want to say it (that the ball was a home run) because a home run hurts their chances of winning. They are the outfielders, the defending team. They don't want to see or admit that a home run was scored against them.
As you can imagine, all this can create a sort of moral test for the children. Will they forthrightly admit that ball was a home run when it was a home run?
Most of the time, while you can see the pain on their face, because truth is hard sometimes, the kids admit that the ball was a home run.
But sometimes they fail, denying that a home run had been hit when the ball landed past the line. And not surprisingly, these moral failures tend to occur more often when the game is very, very close.
The whole thing is a fascinating psychological and moral experiment.
Last week when one of these moral failures occurred during the annual wiffle ball game, a particularly egregious one, my nephew Matthew, who is in college, asked me, "Why do they do that? Why do they lie about a ball being a home run?"
"Because," I said, "they are young. Winning or losing, even something as silly and inconsequential as a wiffle ball game, impacts their self-esteem. Winning makes them feel special and losing makes them feel like a loser. And so they compromise their integrity in order to build up their self-esteem."
"And truthfully," I went on to say, "nothing changes when we get older. The 'winning' and 'losing' may look different, but we are all tempted to compromise our integrity or treat others badly in order to build up our self-esteem."
Now, it's possible I wrote a book about this dynamic. How neurotic anxiety, a desire to secure a sense of significance and self-esteem, becomes "the power of the devil" in our lives.
It's just interesting to see it play out so clearly at such a young age.
Watching the devil at work during a wiffle ball game.