“I suppose all the world’s a stage,” a proudly grinning mother consoled herself as we all searched for our seats to watch a play being put on by the children at our local elementary school. She nodded at her son who, despite not getting the lead role, was dressed up in his Peter Pan costume. “My son’s really very good. I don’t know why he wasn’t cast this year. After all,” she confided in me, “the boy they have in the part is such a troublesome kid. Why not pick a child more deserving of the chance?”
I quickly found my place at the front of rows of collapsible chairs set up in the gymnasium, and the stage lights went up on Neverland. As I watched the play I couldn’t stop thinking about the mother’s comments; she was right. The boy (who was a playmate of my friend’s youngest daughter) was repeatedly in trouble at school with very poor grades. However, on stage tonight as he fumbled and mumbled his way through his lines he was evidently enjoying himself, and, at the end of the performance I overheard his beaming parents encouraging him: “We told you it would feel great, didn’t we? Flying like Peter Pan and getting the best of that nasty Captain Hook!”
I am convinced the boy was cast at least in part as the result of a secret pact between the drama teacher and his concerned parents who wanted to reinforce in their child the virtues of behavior as espoused by the popular hero in J.M Barrie’s story.
These same principles can be applied just as effectively every day with your own kids. All the world is indeed a stage, so it is a great idea to use favorite fiction book characters that kids instinctively cast themselves as on their own “world stage” — i.e. in the playground, with their friends etc. — to help build confidence and encourage good behavior.
Start by identifying the positive messages and lessons in your children’s favorite stories, then get ready to use the fun tools that we fiction writers have handed you!
- Firstly, as parents, recognizing that society’s values are largely transmitted to children through fictional stories, so it is important that we be aware of the value and relevance of the lessons acquired from the kinds of books, stories and other entertainments that we are all exposed to as kids.
- Avoiding scolding kids for acting out roles, playing dress-ups etc, at inappropriate times, such as meal times or bath times, with demeaning phrases such as: “I am not playing games with you; stop messing about in that fantasy world of yours and do as I ask.” This sends the wrong message; kids instinctively know the difference between reality and fantasy and their imaginations should always be encouraged regardless.
- Positively reinforcing desirable character traits in story characters by discussing them and even acting them out. For example, where appropriate, have children examine their own behavior by discussing, or role playing, how their favorite hero or villain might react. Kids respond to this because it lets them use elements of play to examine their behavior in a non-threatening context. Try something like: “Should you be talking to your sister like that? That sounds like something Count Olaf would say to the Baudelaire children in Lemony Snicket — do you think Olaf is a good character or a bad character?”
- Reinforce character traits, but also emphasize the positive action elements in a story — this one isn’t just for boys, either! For example, make a game out of doing chores by actually encouraging children to dress-up and help out. Comments like: “Now see if you can clear away your toys faster than Harry Potter waving his magic wand” will inevitably have the desired effect!
- Work story elements into the daily routine to encourage discipline etc. A good example of this is a tactic my friend, Sadie, uses. Her daughter — who is going through a familiar “fairy princess” phase — refuses to go to bed at the appropriate time. Sadie overcomes this simply by saying “and now it’s time to put on your princess pyjamas and pretend to be Sleeping Beauty.” This method is far more effective than ranting about curfews and demanding teeth are brushed!