Jan 27 2011 9:37am

Spec Fic Parenting: Playing a Role


No, not that kind of role-play. And yes, I’m in that picture, I’m not saying which one.







Well, I’ve talked about how I tell my kids stories, how my kids tell me stories, and how I like to introduce them to high-concept shows. I think they’re well on the path to nerddom. But I’ve realized a rather large aspect of this equation I’ve forgotten, and that is role-play.

Now, I never was much of a “role-player” in the Gary Gygax sense. Nor do I relish role-playing at “parenting classes” or “sensitivity training.” But neither of these are the origin of role-play. No, my kids taught me that one rather blatantly.

This dawned upon me recently when, after watching the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode “The Blue Spirit”, they started role-playing out the fight and unmasking of the spirit. As I look back, I know this is hardly the first time they’ve wanted to act out what they have just seen. From staging Agni Kai fights with each other to hunting and training dragons, my kids play out what they see and add to it. And, of course, they draw me in as well, usually forcing me to be the villain. I trust this is because they want to be the heroes, not because they think I’m all that evil.

So, what’s the revelation? How does this differ for a “Spec Fic Parent” as opposed to a real one? Well, I regret to look back to my own youth for that answer. My parents, for as much as I think they did a wonderful job raising me, did not really role-play with me. Sure, my dad wrestled with me, but there was never a pretext to it, never a story behind it. It was just rough-housing. Additionally, both my parents worked, and my dad went to school at night during the early part of my life. So, in part, my role-playing was done by myself or with my brother, who at five-years my senior, “grew out” of it as I was just coming in. The other kids my age were more interested in baseball or kickball, or honest races or games of tag, and my role-playing quickly became something more of a dark secret than something I could embrace and cherish.

Fast forward to a more accepting, bright future away from the backwoods of nowhere. I still don’t think my kids are being encouraged at their preschool to rescue princesses with their imaginations, and it is up to me to keep it alive. It’s hard, I admit. As a single dad, I have to find time to not only cook dinner, give them baths, and all that, but I have to fit in my writing, chores, and any other errands. Much like my parents before me, it is only too easy to say “not now” when the kids want to draw me into one of their elaborate role-plays. This is an impulse I find myself constantly having to fight.

But why? Why not just let it fade? Or at least let them entertain themselves? Well, there is something to be said for letting them entertain themselves, which I do regularly, but I think a certain amount of role-play with the kids is important, to continue and encourage it. And why encourage? For one, it makes the story theirs, not just an image on the television or from a book. I ask, what is better: to enjoy a story that teaches mercy, or to act it out and be the one that gives the mercy? Granted, my kids aren’t always merciful, or are in a Commodus from Gladiator kind of way. And that right there is a good reason to be involved. I can guide them through the role-play some, expanding their imaginations and cementing the morality.

Furthermore, as I believe I said before, I am astounded by my kids’ imagination, and I fear them losing it. I think the Pablo Picasso quote about being an artist applies. He said, “Every child is born an artist, the problem is to remain one once they grow up.” The same is true for being a dreamer. We as a society squash the ideas of imaginary friends and far off adventures, and the idea of role-play becomes anthemia to a “normal person.” Bah, I say.

I still role-play out some scenes I am trying to write. It helps to insert oneself into the action like that. And why do you think they have those horribly conceived role-play scenarios at those “training seminars” we are sometimes forced to go to by Human Resources? Not only does it encourage the imagination, it encourages empathy, something I think the world is rather short on. Imagine that, the escapism of speculative fiction can actually make a person more in touch with the real world. I bet that’d blow the minds of all those “down-to-earth” parents who make their kids abandon the ideas of an imaginary friend and role-play.

So, while I definitely want to hear about the role-play you encourage your kids to do, or that they drag you into, I also want to call to action. Go play with your kids. Storm a castle with them, save the princess, and all that jazz. Yeah, it may feel a little silly to you since you are out of practice, but it will mean the world to them. That, and it will help them understand it all the better.

Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and pretends to be a ninja on alternating Thursdays. His latest writing endeavor, The Tijervyn Chronicles, an illustrated, serialized steampunk novel, can be read for free on his website, and you can keep up to date on his adventures via Facebook and Twitter.

1. Wereviking
A timely post for me, as I've just begun very very basic role-playing sessions with my kids because I want to hone and nourish those amazing young imaginations. Already it has thrown up the most interesting conundrums, and as a parent I am there to help guide them through a tricky path. It does raise the question of subjecting your children to nerd-dom, rather than letting them choose their own path. But to watch my little boy's brain explode at the possibility for art, maps, drama, history, etc, is a wonder to behold and it is wonderful for me to be there to nourish that for him as an understanding parent as our previous generation of needs-based parents never were.


Zephyr -- a superhero webcomic in prose
Ty Margheim
2. alSeen
My 5 1/2 year old daughter is constantly pretending. For the last two years, her favorite show has been the 90's Xmen cartoon. She'll spend hours (if we could handle it) pretending to be Rogue or Jean Grey and making her mom and me be different characters.

Recently, after I introduced her to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (both the older cartoon and the live action movies), she has taken to adding them into the Xmen mix. So you have Rogue talking to Splinter. Every once in a while some My Little Pony or Barbie characters will get thrown in too.
David C
3. Malkier
We don't have kids yet, but when my wife and I visit my youngest siblings there is usually some combination of Harry Potter/Last Airbender action going on. "Pillow-bending" is a popular game...and a sometimes devastating magic power.

Nice article, Richard.
Sky Thibedeau
4. SkylarkThibedeau
We turned role play into a family business. My spouse is a cobbler and leather worker. We have a booth at RenFaires selling hand made (in the USA) shoes, belts, and bags. Our kids and Mother in law help out and we all dress up and play act being Elizabethans every weekend during the season.
Sim Tambem
5. Daedos
Well said. There is a shortage of perfect imaginations in this world; it would be a pity to damage those of our children.
As important as imaginations are, though, I agree with you on the whole empathy thing and us being there to "guide" them through their interactions.
If, as parents, we don't step into that role and become examples, they'll just find someone else to emulate... Voldemort...

Nice post.
6. 12stargazers
Lambson @5
I know you're joking about Voldemort, however....

I have a friend who comes from a very disfunctional family and raised herself from an early age. Her early role models were the fictional characters she read about. She wound up doing a lot of stuff on her own that would have gotten Child Protective Services invovled if she hadn't figured out how to stay under the radar like any good adventurer in dangerous territory.

So yeah, Richard Fife was right. Kids want to be heroes. They get all the cool stories and do all sorts of fun things and don't get in trouble for it. However, the kids in my life like their oral stories to be non-fiction. I get to play
professor-and-class a lot along with music director/referee.

Which is why when I take the nieces and nephews out for walks, I encourage them to climb that story and a half stacked stone retaining wall in the park or take off their shoes and wade in the creek on the family farm. If they want to help me break ground to install a flower bed, I'll show them the best way to use a spade and let them get filthy. Every kid needs some adventure in their life.
Chuk Goodin
7. Chuk
alseen @2;
My 5.5 year old daughter is a bit of a TMNT fan, too, although they've lately been eclipsed by the characters from Back to the Future.

Her older sisters still play pretend games at ten and thirteen. Sometimes tabletop RPGs with me but more often just their own freeform thing, often with props/costumes.
Kurt Lorey
8. Shimrod
In the picture, R. Fife is the one pretending to be "of the Yellow Ajah". Look closer. Kinda looks like a younger Rick Astley, too. rofl
9. RobinM
Just remember your kids may play games you remember in whole new ways. I played Cops and Robbers as a kid with my cousins. Ours played CSI at the same age. There were Q-tips scattered all over the house. :)
Richard Fife
10. R.Fife
Good comments all, except you Shimrod :P I am ashamed to say that as of that picture, I had only read about half of Eye of the World, and that had been years prior. I didn't even know what the yellow ajah was.

And apropos to the article: today I did my monthly volunteer hour at my elder son's preschool. When I got there, because it was a nice day here in coastal North Carolina, I found him and his class playing outside. So I go out to play with the kids and help herd the cats, such as it were, only to find it was not cats I was herding. It was Dragons.

See, the kids were already playing a game of "Dragons", in which I became the sudden and unwitting dinner. I had ten preschoolers chasing me all over the playground, flapping their arms and breathing fire. Even after I announced I was a dragon-slayer and chased them a bit, they quickly realized they had strength in numbers and overwhelmed again. I have no doubt that my son was the instigator of this game prior to my arrival.

I'll also say I was quite pleased to hear several other of the preschool children role-playing Avatar: The Last Airbender characters. I have a feeling us Spec Fic Parents are far more common that I had first suspected. Or at the least, the kids are finding it on their own.

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