Children are master pretenders. They don’t just play a part. They play all the parts. They work through their issues over and over. One day you’ll see playmobile figures crying for mommy. Another you will overhear one being mean to the others. And of course there are the uncomfortable times when you see lots of figures missing limbs – or their heads! It’s a scary world and there is much readying to do.
Practice makes perfect. Theater skills are central to our children’s development, helping them understand and manage how they express themselves with their bodies, voices and words. Self-expression in context. Social skills. After all, we all know that “all the world is a stage,” right?
And as our kids grow, the need to identify and find their own cliques increases. They adjust their behavior to show belonging – to tell the world very clearly ‘here’s who I am (today). I am like these friends.” If they shift groups, their behavior will shift as well. We may see a new child come through the door at night. Defining who they are is important and difficult work.
So, welcome to the dramatic world of theater in kids’ everyday lives. It isn’t easy becoming who they need to be. They can experience stage fright just walking down the hall, well aware they are being watched and judged. It can be brutal. Let’s engage them in comfortable conversations about the forces at play. If we can stay connected, they will have the social skills and self-awareness necessary for a healthy sense of agency in their own lives.
Theater in real life
Ask your child what they think is going on in this photo? Did Speaker Pelosi feel she needed to applaud even if she didn’t agree with what was said? What kind of message do you think she is trying to send with the way she chose to applaud? Are there times when it is okay (or even good) to choose a different way – and times when you think it is not okay? Spend a few minutes trying to find different – and silly?- ways to applaud that send messages other than appreciation. Photograph: Doug Mills/Pool via Reuters
This person is pledging to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. … Explore promises with your child. It is a word that carries special importance. Sometimes just saying the words isn’t enough; we act out the importance by raising our right hand or by placing our right hand over our heart. What if, to show how much we mean it, we had to hop on one foot? Would that work? Photographs: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) & pearlsofprofundity.wordpress.com.
Ask your child about the ways the people in this photo are showing that they are part of the same team. What might happen is someone in this group didn’t clap with the others? Have you been in situations where most of the people around you were expressing something together and you didn’t feel the same? What did you do? When you and your child are together, help them notice public displays that model agreement. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty
Thoughts and Prayers?
Consoling a friend can feel overwhelming for kids. “I just don’t know what to say.” Learning a script or two, or acting them out, can help them through that first contact, connecting them again with their friend. Discuss/practice a few phrases.
- I’m so sorry to hear that your ( ) has died.
- I will miss your ( ) too; I liked him/her.
- Talk about sitting close and being quiet with them. Being quiet together can be just what your friend needs. It may be hard for them to talk about it at first.
- If your friend cries, you can reach out to put your arm on their back – to stand with them. Or just hold their hand. Or just say again how sorry you are.
- Help your child appreciate that their friend may want to talk about other things. Sometimes doing something quiet together can make the day easier. Let your friend take the lead.
- Act it out with them, showing how it can look and sound. Look into their eyes. Ask if they have any other ideas
- Talk a bit about funerals. What they should expect. Help them appreciate that the sadness will get better over time and there will just be more remembering
Religious Rituals as Theater!
Explain that all religions perform rituals to explain and remember the stories and values important to their faith. Acting out ceremonies and rituals are important ways people stay connected to each other and to their faith.
- Do you think the holiday would be as memorable if, instead of acting it out, they just handed out a page that tells the story?
- Let’s think about some rituals in our lives.
- Almost every religion has special rituals that are performed when people get married? Why do you think that is an important event to act out?
Boss of Art?
The arts are very powerful. So powerful that dictators fear them and do what they can to control what people see, the stories they hear, their music, even what people wear – everything. They know the arts can change people’s feelings and even make them feel they can make a change in their government. The purpose of this discussion is to help your child recognize the reasons dictators fear artists and the messages they bring.
Definition: A dictatorship is a government or a social situation where one person makes all the rules and decisions without input from anyone else.
- Why do you think a dictator would want to control the arts?
- What might happen if people living under a dictator wore a t-shirt that was insulting to the dictator?
- In free countries we often have protest songs inspiring people to make the world – and their country – a better place. Do you think it takes courage to write and perform songs that criticize leaders in free countries? In dictatorships?
- How do you think other citizens feel or react when they see risky art? Do you think they look away because they are afraid? Do you think they try to protect the artist?
- Dictators are afraid that people will come together and challenge them. How do you think the arts help people come together?
- Let’s try to find art in our country that might not be legal under a dictatorship.
The purpose of these discussion ideas is to help your child appreciate that all the world is really a stage. Learning a few basic manners (scripts) helps us all interact with our community – easing our way and getting us all through common situations while showing respect and care. By hearing and learning the words and actions, and by being able to turn to them when the situation demands, they can show that they respect others and want to belong. They grow into the community.
- Help your child appreciate the importance of greeting others – the importance of hello and good-by.
- Can you imagine what the world would be like if we didn’t greet each other? What if someone came into our home and we didn’t even look up? What would happen? What might they feel?
- Manners help us all know how to handle those situations easily.
- Sometimes it can be quick and easy – like “Hi!” while catching each other’s eyes. Is this how you and your friends greet each other? Do you have other ways?
- Other times, especially when we meet someone for the first time, we give our names, look into each others eyes and shake hands. That’s a little more formal. How would you feel if there was someone in your group that you hadn’t met? Knowing how to greet makes it easy for everyone.
- Let’s think about if a friend had dinner at our house and they just left and we didn’t know it. What would that be like for you? Why do you think saying good-by is important?
- And while we are at it, if that friend had dinner with us and just left, are there other words it would be important for us to hear?
- Let’s see if we can notice all the ways people show manners over the next few days. Let’s make a list.
- We can make up some special manners just for this family. What can we say in the morning instead of “good morning?” We could say “blueberry pancakes” instead. Or “”all-in-be-peach-in-be-duel.” If someone says “good morning” we can pretend we don’t understand that language
Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery – it’s the sincerest form of learning. George Bernard Shaw
The Senior Thespian – You!
Role playing is an important way children learn about themselves and others. By assuming roles of kings and queens, teachers and presidents, they get to experience situations they might never come across in real life. By taking the lead, by shape-shifting unexpectedly, you can bring crowds of new acquaintances into their lives. By responding and eventually initiating in character, your child builds confidence and empathy. And it is all so much fun.
- Become a haughty queen as you serve lunch. Insist on silly rituals in order to be allowed to eat.
- A king who doesn’t recognize most of your utensils
- A cowboy who reads nighttime stories
- A French painter who is fussy about setting the table.
- A newscaster reporting on what the child is doing.
- An astronaut floating around.
- Someone who just doesn’t want to be seen.
- Encourage them to pretend their own characters – or join you in your imaginary world.
Navigating Social Challenges
Kids are aware of the importance of being able to successfully navigate through their social worlds. They instinctively know that they are destined to find their own way some day – and correctly fear being ostracized or isolated. They need to belong; they need to know how to belong. The purpose of these conversations is to help them anticipate and practice basic social situations in advance, increasing the likelihood that they will thrive.
- In anticipation of an upcoming event, ‘Let’s walk through what will happen at this (wedding/ graduation/ funeral/ etc.). That way it will be easier for us to relax and participate.’
- First, have a quick discussion about what everyone will be wearing – as a way to show respect.
- Then imagine each step from the time you enter the event. ‘When we first get there, we might have to introduce ourselves before going over to ….’ Practice the greeting – you as greeter. ‘Does that sound okay?’ ‘Your turn.’
- Continue to think about whom you will meet inside, group activities, etc. – always helping your child see their way through.
- ‘What if …” imagine a series of possibilities with your child. What if some cousins want you to run through the halls? What if someone spills their punch? What if you can’t find me? In each scenario, model some basic responses and ask if they have other ideas.
- Get in the preparation habit. If you know your child is having trouble with some classmates, do a walk through. Do a role play.
- If your child tends to shy away from joining in, … help them imagine possibilities and consequences. ‘What if you just walked up and said you would like to join them, what might they say?’ Act it out. You act out their role and they act out the classmates role – then flip roles. Make sure they can see their way to feeling safe.
- Occasionally go through the same process related to one of your upcoming challenges. Show your interest in making the situation as successful as it can be for both you and your friend. Practice a response and ask your child what they think?
- The bottom line is modeling some natural anxiety, care, respect and increased comfort when you have thought it through or acted it out.
Mime (Is pretending a better word?)
I know. Scary thought. But the point of this activity is for kids to get acting/pretending, noticing specific characteristics of individuals in their lives and have fun doing it.
- Make your own game. Make small folded cards with actions listed. (Eating soup with a fork, jumping on a trampoline, getting married, etc. ) The more activity cards the better.
- You take turns drawing a card. Consider having a time limit for older kids.
- Act out the activity.
- Applause – for effort
- Decide if you want any competition. You could get points for guessing it right. Or points for getting someone to name it correctly in the shortest amount of time. Or vote at the end for the funniest.
Puppets can stimulate children’s imagination, encourage creative play and discovery. But the most glorious power of puppets is that, when your child engages with them, their reaction is real. If the puppet is sad, your child will automatically try to comfort – not pretend to comfort. If the puppet keeps interrupting them, your child will deal with the problem – not pretend to deal with the problem. By bringing stuffed animals or other inanimate objects to life, you have the opportunity to deal with real feelings or events in their lives.
- Consider having a puppet who always seems worried about growing up. They can turn to your child as an older mentor. Let the child guide and comfort.
- A puppet has been bullied and doesn’t understand why people do that.
- The puppet can do something a little rude, then deny doing it. Help your child encourage the puppet, to show that they understand how hard it can be sometimes to admit doing something wrong.
- Have the puppet ask you something about your day – something you want your child to hear/understand. As you tell your story, have the puppet look to the child, nod and make sure your child is listening. The puppet can turn to the child and say something like, “Wow. That’s a surprise. How did you know what to do?”
- The puppet can share their feelings about something then ask your child about their feelings. Have the puppet nod to show listening, or lay their head on your child’s shoulder to show understanding.
- For all of these activities, engaging with puppets gives you a chance to see and experience your child’s emotional state or developmental progress.
- The puppet might join your family for dinner or watching a show together – being silly or curious.
What is real and what is pretend?
Okay, so if, as adults, we struggle with what is fake news, how likely is it that our children have it all figured out? The purpose of these conversation ideas is to help children understand that much of what they see ‘in real life’ is performance. To get them thinking. All the world is a stage and we can help them appreciate and discern.
- When kids are very young, introduce a ‘real or not’ habit. Start and stay relatively easy. Cartoon characters. Superman? What is real about Superman or Superwoman? There are real people pretending but they can’t really fly. As a parent, pretend to be a superhero and talk about why we enjoy those stories.
- As they get older … what is a documentary? Is everything in the documentary true? Sometimes. But sometimes people are creating a message to persuade and thereby assemble only the stories that support that persuasion. They are telling a story.
- Politics provide lots of opportunities to discern. How can you tell when a candidate is telling what they really feel or believe vs what they want the story to be? Explore the concept of ‘staying on message.’
- In their real life – explore situations when people may pretend to agree, feel, etc. Why do people do that? Do you do that?
- If someone isn’t happy but they are pretending to be happy, what might be going on?
- Bottom line – the Shakespeare quote is always a helpful context. In real life. Explore intentions behind statements.
Pretend to be …
One of the special powers of theater is that, by bringing a character to life, the actor is able to relate to that character’s real experience. It can bring insights, empathy and self awareness. The purpose of these activities is to help your child step into new worlds easily and playfully. When you meet them in that pretend world, all sorts of new discoveries await.
- Let’s pretend to be … animals. See if you can guess what animal.
- Then – pretend to be a cow who wants all the daisies but the other cows are eating them too quickly
- A butterfly who can’t decide what pretty flower to visit.
- A dog who can’t remember where he buried his bone.
- Then – move on to people and situations. First, pretend to be a fussy baby. (Kids LOVE to be fussy babies.) Someone who is too tired to eat their meal. Someone who doesn’t want to wake up.
- Finally, onto real people. Can you act out mommy when you spill something in the back of the car. Pretend to be grandpa trying to find his glasses. Pretend to be your teacher teaching a science lesson. Pretend to be a bully and then pretend to be someone who stands up to the bully.
- Have some fun pretending to be your child in a common situation.
- You can make a routine of anticipating upcoming, perhaps stressful, situations. Play out ways they could deal with them. Let’s pretend all the kids at the party are talking and someone feels left out.
Inside – outside
This discussion can help your child appreciate that there is a difference between having feelings and showing feelings. It gets right to the heart of children’s constant struggle between belonging and being special.
- Notice characters in books or videos. What do you think that character might be feeling?
- What clues are you using? Get them to notice, not just facial expressions, but body language.
- If someone feels happy, show me how they might show they are happy. Sad. Tired. Frustrated. Scared. Lonely.
- Join in.
- Then – try combinations. If someone was happy and tired …..? Angry but in a hurry? Take turns making up combinations the other has to do. Get silly.
- Can you think of times that someone might choose to act happy even if they weren’t?
- Share some personal stories from when you were a child when you didn’t want others to know what you were really feeling.
- Why might people not want to share their real feelings? Have you ever been nervous but tried to hide it? (An obvious example is the pressure kids feel NOT to cry.)
- Being a friend sometimes means that we focus on harmony rather than on differences.
- Share a story or two about times when you chose to hold your real feelings til the time was right.
- Being able to pretend or delay can be one way of showing love. Of keeping the focus on your friend for a while rather than on you.
- Can you think of times when it is important NOT to hide your real feelings? Talk about times when you took a stand and told someone what you really felt in the moment even though it was difficult to do.
Learning to Read Basic Body Language
The purpose of these exercises is to build awareness that how we “act” is in our control and that it tells a story about us. How we walk into a room may link us to a certain clique. How we greet people can communicate emotion. And all of this can reflect our values, such as working together, respect or even honesty. How likely are you to trust someone who won’t look you in the eye?
How does your child carry him/herself? This is such a sensitive and volatile topic. If your child is simply trying to keep his/her body changes private by slouching, it is certainly understandable. But somewhere in there is the opportunity to begin to use that body to tell the world the positive news about the new them. What they like. Their energy. Their willingness to engage with people around them. Eventually they will be able to align and integrate their insides with their outsides. It takes practice.
With all of these potentially intimate discussions it is important to engage initially around observation of others. Build awareness of the vocabulary of walking, or greeting or sitting at the table. They will learn to interpret and get meaning. I would suggest that rarely should the discussion turn to them specifically. They get it and probably will demand to figure this out privately.
Different scene. Different performance.
The purpose of these discussion ideas is to help children recognize that we all adjust how we act based on context – and that can be a good thing.
- An easy way to introduce this concept can be as you prepare to attend an event with a little more formality than what they are accustomed to.
- We’re going to Auntie’s wedding and its important that we all are ready to help make it special. Not only do we dress up a little, we also want to be sure we don’t distract from their celebration. So we will be sure to sit still during the ceremony. And we will practice good manners by introducing ourselves. to new people …
- Can you think of other situations where people act differently? Can you run around at a party? At Grandma’s house? At church?
- How do you know and how do you decide?
- Share some stories from your childhood when you noticed people were acting differently and you didn’t know quite how to act. Visiting a family from a different faith?
- But – the most important part of this discussion is to help your child understand that, no matter what, they don’t violate their values. Talk about your values – respect, kindness, etc.
- Adjusting how you act can be a way of showing respect to hosts.
- Doing something you know is wrong just in order to belong to a group …. very different. Mention a time you felt uncomfortable with a social situation and how you handled it.
Children need to learn how to interact in basic social situations politely and with confidence. Basic greetings, taking a phone message, table skills. Children who have these skills under their belts will be able to find their way in the world more comfortably and successfully.
Children can understand that manners help people feel at ease and safe. As they practice, help them find personal variations. On your way to a social event, make a habit of reviewing the basics. Encourage them to be proud and to have fun.
We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!
Bully Boot Camp
If your preteen or teenage children and their friends talk about bullies at school, encourage them to do something about it. See if your child would like to take the lead in making a difference. If so, print out the attached Boot Camp Guidelines and review them together. If he or she wants to proceed, offer support – and maybe even a reward (like special team t-shirts?) Ask if you can take a few pictures of them working on the project.
If the project seems too big, consider, as a parent, providing some extra help.
Act Your Age!
- Ask your child what the phrase, Act Your Age, might mean.
- Do you know someone at school who doesn’t appear to act his/her age? Tell me more.
- What do you think people expect from kids your age?
- What do you think people expect from grown-ups?
- Might someone who is 18 and in the army be expected to act differently from an 18 year old still in high school?
Who is the Boss of Me?
These discussion points explore peer pressure. You may want to role play a few situations so they can feel more prepared if the situation arises.
- Are there some kids in your school who seem to decide what is cool, or who is popular? Do they make fun of kids who don’t follow their lead?
- Has anyone ever made fun of one of your friends? How did it make you feel? What did you say or do?
- Do you ever worry before you go to school about how people will react to what you are wearing or about your hair?
- If someone were to be pressured to leave some old friends behind in order to stay in a group, what do you think they should do? What could they say to be true to themselves?
- Share stories from your childhood. Tell them when you felt fearful or embarrassed or were teased?
- Consider role playing. Imagine an uncomfortable situation where someone is criticizing someone for how they look. Make a list of all the things you could say or do if that happens. Which response do you think is the best one?
Laugh and the world laughs with you
From the University College London.
According to a study, laughter truly is contagious: the brain responds to the sound of laughter and preps the muscles in the face to join in the mirth. “It seems that it’s absolutely true that ‘laugh and the whole world laughs with you,” said Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at the University College London.
- Have a little fun with this. Explore laughing and crying.
- Why do you think our bodies laugh and cry automatically? It seems like Mother Nature’s way of making sure people can take care of one another. It makes it easy for us to stay connected.
- How do you feel when someone around you is laughing uncontrollably? Sometimes we just laugh along too, even if we don’t know what is funny.
- And when people cry? Do we automatically feel sad too?
- Do you think any two people have the same laugh? Or cry?
- Have there been times in your lives when you didn’t want to laugh out loud – but it happened anyway.
- Do you think you can tell is someone is only pretending to laugh or cry? Why might someone do that?
- Sometimes people try really hard not to let people see them cry. Why might someone feel that way? Have you ever felt that way?
- Share a time when you tried to hold back tears.
What is it? The habit of ending every sentence as if it is a question is practiced most often by girls. Bringing awareness of this ubiquitous habit may help your child limit its use.
First – awareness. Can they notice it in others?
Second – understanding. Why would the tentative tone of upspeak be a benefit or a disadvantage?
Finally – can they adjust it’s use in their own speech?
Parents: Use care and patience. This is a difficult and important lesson in self awareness & self control.
If you see someone behave in a surprising way, explore what might be behind their actions. Why do you think this person acted that way?
What might be their motivation? What else?
Encourage your child to explore alternative theories.
You might occasionally ask how others might read/misread their actions.
The objective is to help them realize how much they can control the messages they send.
Does acting confident make you feel confident?
If yes, why do you suppose that is?
If not, does it change how people perceive you?
The stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life.
Oh there’s so much. Talk about presentation style of high profile politicians. Does their style tell you anything about their background? In what ways do they all tend to act alike? Why? In what ways do their styles differ? Why?
Understanding constituencies. Why might someone address an audience of military personnel differently from an audience of farm workers? Is that a good thing that their styles differ by audience?
Connecting Inner & Outer Worlds
Encourage best friends to talk about what is difficult at school (meanness, taunting, etc.). Support them in writing a short play together to capture the experience.
They can offer to do a performance for kids in a younger grade. The teacher can lead a discussion.
Should We Wear Our Hearts on Our Sleeves?
The common phrase means to make your feelings and opinions obvious to other people.
Explore with your child the advantages and disadvantages of always displaying what you are feeling.
When do you think it might be best to keep your feelings private?
If someone is scared and they act brave, are they being brave?
How open should you be if you really like someone but can’t be sure if they return the feelings?
Say It Like You Mean It!
Do you think its okay to pretend that you really like the sweater Grandma gave you? Why?
What is it that you are really saying/showing by doing that?
Are there other situations you think would be best served by deceiving?
Are there rules on how much you need to tell people about what you are feeling?
What Can You Tell?
Do you think you can tell if someone is wealthy or poor just by how they walk?
What is it about how they move that might be a clue?
Do you think people are treated differently because of how they carry themselves?
The stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life.