I’ve been thinking for a while about how everyone who sees me with my kids has exactly the same comment, which is that I don’t ever flip out at them or let them control my emotions. It’s a comment, of course, that reflects what I’m presenting to the outside world, rather than what’s going on in my head, but there’s some truth to it. After hearing this from a number of people, I started to wonder if it was so unusual, and if it is, why I do it. I don’t think I ever consciously decided not to let them see when they’re pushing my buttons. And then I realized–it’s because I’m a director. And this is some directors work.
I’ve been directing plays since I was 15. It’s a great way to get ready for toddler parenting.
I’m reluctant to say it quite like that, though. I know that theater people read that and they’re ready for some jokes about actors being like toddlers. I hate this attitude, which I frequently see from other directors. If you don’t like actors, directing is not a good choice for you. It’s like being a potter who can’t stand how clay feels under his hands. Madness. To the contrary, I love actors, and I find them to be, on the whole, more emotionally mature and empathetic than the general population. And yet, directing is essentially an exercise in finely tuning an emotional ecosystem. I’m pretty good at it.
So here’s the list I’ve been writing in my head, all about how my directing skills help me with the toddlers. If you think you might like to parent small children in a decade or so, might I recommend taking up play directing? But anyway, this list honestly has zero jokes about actors being big babies, so if that’s what you were looking for, you’d better move on.
- Leaders gotta lead. In the theater: If you want people to feel safe enough to do vulnerable stuff in rehearsal, you have to make sure that you are confident and in charge of the process. I’m no autocrat, certainly. Actors who have worked with me will attest that I almost always ask them what they think about a decision. But they trust that I won’t let them look like a moron on stage, that I won’t let that one chatty Cathy (not an actual actor named Cathy) monopolize the rehearsal time, that I do have some kind of plan in mind. When they trust my leadership, they can do great and interesting things. This lesson was a hard one to learn, because I’m naturally very collaborative and not hierarchical, but getting the balance right absolutely transformed my work. With little kids: I sometimes get lazy and make a dumb move like (tonight), asking, “What do you want for dinner?” (answer: nothing we have. Or that he’s allowed to have.) Life is so much easier when I structure decisions. Do you want A or B? C is not an option. Or, You have to have at least one thing from each group of things. Or, This is dinner. I’m sorry if you are hungry later.
- You can’t be afraid of emotions. In the theater: Theater is embodied emotion, and that is so scary. The reason there are so many crappy actors out there is that finding a place of honesty is scary. Acting the surface of an emotion is much easier, and most of the audience won’t know what’s missing. But I know, and the actors know, deep down. The only way to get there is (1) Create a safe space for emotions by being a trustworthy leader (see #1), and (2) talk honestly about the layers in an emotion. When I was a kid, my mom signed me up for art lessons with her friend. I don’t remember much about it–I don’t think we did it very long, and visual arts were never my thing–but one amazing thing I remember was when she gave me an index card with a small (maybe 1 cm) square cut out of it. She told me to look at a bowl of fruit without it and tell her what color a plum was (purple, right?). Then she said to look at it through this small hole, and tell her. When I looked at it like that, I could suddenly see the layers of colors that made up that purple. I didn’t anticipate seeing, within this tiny space, so many distinct colors–blue, gold, brown, tan–all adding up to plum. Dealing with emotions in the rehearsal space is like that. You can’t just assume you know what’s there. You have to look closer, look one centimeter at a time. And you have to be honest about what you find. Grief, for example, is so many things, and I don’t just mean the “seven stages.” It’s alienation and loose ends. It’s also, sometimes, deeply funny, and that funniness can be terrifying. When a director is unafraid of emotions and deliberate about articulating them, actors can be, too. With little kids: Wow. Emotions are scary for them! They’re new and crazy and BIG. When my kids are pitching a fit, I think the best thing I can do is be present with them. I don’t try to fix it (because wow it is never ever ever fixable. Fixing = logic. Emotional storms != logic). I’m just there. I might remove them from a room full of people, but I don’t abandon them. This, actually, is the first way I realized I use directing in parenting. In rehearsal, I certainly have my own set of emotional responses to what is going on, but they’re often a distraction, and I’ve learned to put them in a box when someone else’s emotions are more urgent. When my kids are having a fit, I certainly feel embarrassment, impatience, frustration, and an intense longing for quiet. I put all of that in a box for a bit, because that is the fastest way to get to that quiet. When a storm passes, we talk through it. Why did this happen? What did it feel like? Were there a lot of feelings going on? These kinds of talks are why Petra, at not-quite-two, once shouted, “Siwas! I am feewing vewy FUSTRATED at you right now!” She has a broader vocabulary for describing her feelings than most adults. And when you can name and categorize your feelings, they’re not as scary. You can control them a bit. You can start to see their patterns. I should also add that I don’t permanently keep my emotions in that box. Once the child is in a state of relative self-control and calm, I tell them how I felt during whatever just went down. They’re often a bit shocked that they have that kind of effect on me, but I think it’s important for them to know how powerful they are.
- Let’s try that again, from the other guy’s perspective. In the theater: One exercise I do a lot is asking actors to improvise around a scene they’re playing, but switch objectives. So suddenly, one actor is trying to get what the other’s character is usually trying to get. It always adds depth to a scene, and is, honestly, pretty fun. With little kids: We’re constantly practicing “perspective-taking.” How did your friend feel when you kicked his block tower? What could you do to help him feel better? What might he want in trade? Lately, Silas has been talking a lot about “bad guys” and “good guys.” I’ve been trying to explain that the bad guys don’t think of themselves as bad guys. They’re just trying to get things that run in opposition to what the good guys want.
- Say yes. In the theater: “Say yes” is the first rule of improv, but it doesn’t stop there. When an actor changes how she’s playing a role, everyone in the whole play has to adjust in response to it, or the play falls apart. Reminding actors to “say yes” in a play is super important. They get into their habits of how they are playing a scene, and they get in ruts so deep that they can’t follow another actor into an interesting space. With little kids: We don’t have a ton of rules. Unless we have a really good reason not to, we try to say yes as much as we can. Our house is arranged so that everything within the kids’ reach is okay to touch. Beyond rules, though, saying yes also means paying attention to them and responding to their needs, whether that means spending a day on the couch with a cluster-feeding infant or protecting private space for a toddler who has had too much social time lately.
- Get used to repetition. In the theater: You’ve heard of rehearsal, right? With little kids: You’ve heard of the soundtrack from Frozen, right? But seriously, in either situation, you’re going to hear or say the same thing eleventy-thousand times. Finding ways to discover new things in each repetition makes it not only bearable, but fun and productive.
- Use a script. In the theater: I’m a text nerd. Improv is not my thing (although I like watching it, making it isn’t my jam). I love scripts. I love when someone else has already thought about the words. With little kids: Scripts are *the best*. They’ve learned several dozen scripts from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood about social interaction and self-regulation, and will actually sing these to each other to remind each other of social rules (like, “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, / Take a deep breath and count to four.”). We also have little scripts within our family that are becoming nearly reflexive for them, and I love it. For example, toy snatching was a big issue (because they’re toddlers). I taught them to say, “Can I have a turn when you’re done?” We don’t put a time limit on turns, and the request includes when you are done, as in, when you decide you are done. It’s amazing how many fewer fights over toys we have now that they’ve mastered this script. We tell little kids to “use their words” a bunch. It’s not such a bad thing to give them some words to start with.
- Know when to stop. In the theater: Reading a group of actors and knowing when the energy wave has crested is a good trick. Although I appreciate the actor-protection reasoning behind scheduled breaks, I prefer to use them when I need them. I can tell the difference between a group that is ready to go to a new level with one more pass and a group that needs to stop and get a snack. Knowing when to stop prevents breakdowns and keeps things positive. With little kids: Know the signs! Don’t try to power through them. Pretty much every awful public space experience I’ve had with my kids has happened when I’ve been an idiot and decided that we could handle just one more stop. Know when to get those babies home. Feed their faces. Give them their own space.
None of this is meant to imply that I’m a great parent, most days. I’m also not always a super director. I have more bad days than good ones, certainly. But the things I’m doing when I’m doing it right are the same things. Toddler parenting can be overwhelming because I have so little experience. I’m such a rookie, still, and they change every day. But I’ve been directing plays for over half of my life. I need to remind myself that I have a lot more experience than I think, sometimes.
This is one of those weirdly specific posts that only a few dozen people will find applies to their lives…but I honestly believe that the skills you learn at your job, regardless of what it is, can make you a better parent. Kids are just tiny people, and anything you’ve learned that makes you better at interacting with humans will make you better at interacting with kids. So I want to know, what have you learned from your vocation that has translated into life with kids?