Playing A Role

This article originally appeared at

Quick, what’s a doctor like?

Smart? Friendly? Caring? Clean?

What’s a teacher like?

Stern? Patient? Funny?

What about a policeman? Cowboy? Priest? Magician? Mother?

From an early age, we come to understand people by the roles they play. It doesn’t seem to matter that people themselves are unique – we expect doctors to be clever, firefighters to be brave, and teachers to be kind. Daddies we expect to be strong (but my dad could whip yours), and Mommies to be caring. When we step into a new area of responsibility, whether it’s attending kindergarten or teaching it, we often look to our understanding of these roles to tell us how we should acquit ourselves.

This is not always necessarily good, but it seems a common part of being human, and I think it’s a great example of how children learn by imagination.

It is sometimes startling to see the change in my high-energy, high-volume, highly-strung daughter when she plays at being mamma to her dolls. As she imagines herself to be a gentle, caring mother, those virtues – still mostly undeveloped at her age – are displayed in her behavior. When my son plays at being Robin Hood, he acts with strength and kindness, and rehearses a kind of virtuous manliness I am glad to see.

Of course nothing is perfect. At our house, Robin Hood gets bored with robbing the rich, and settles for mugging whomever’s nearest. But I think it’s a refreshing change of pace when, instead of saying (again) that he should “love [his] sisters,” I can say, “be like the real Robin Hood.” It gives him a specific goal, and is a way to encourage the good things God may be doing in his heart.

I encourage my children to engage the world by thinking about the roles we all play. Because, while we are much more than the sum of our roles (more on that later), we are not less.