The Power of Role Reversal

Role reversal can feel like one of those parenting moves that takes too much mental energy. And is a tad outside of your comfort zone. I understand. Really, I do. Before becoming an aunt and getting to practice my skills on my nieces and nephews (because the stakes are a lot lower when you're not the one feeding, bathing and putting to bed), I felt the same. I'm not naturally the dramatic sort, and the idea of putting on a personality or character that isn't me felt unnatural. Since rigorously testing on family members and as a mom of a preschooler who responds well to this kind of play, I have become a HUGE advocate of role reversal.

What is it? Role reversal is simply trading roles. You become the child (or the powerless one), your child becomes you (or someone in power). Many of us fall into it as we follow our child's lead..."Mommy, you be the puppy and I'm the owner!", or "I'm the teacher and you're the student". If this is familiar territory, I want to suggest that this kind of play can also be used as a tool. Expand these interactions to address triggering moments or unlikely situations. And though I'm most familiar with preschool-age examples, with a little stumbling around (initially) and willingness to 'fail', this set-up works for older children as well. Here are three approaches to try:

1. Become a bumbling/naive character. You forget how to do something critical (tie shoes, brush teeth, eat with a spoon, etc.). The novelty of switching up the dynamic can often circumvent major push-back or at least make it more pleasant. I can't promise it will 'work' in the sense of accomplishing a particular task faster, but I can promise you that it will help you maintain your sense of cool and play, and your child will appreciate your more constructive energy. A relationship win, even if it's not a functional win. Credit Lawrence J. Cohen for this idea. His book Playful Parenting deeply informs our philosophy and application of improv parenting.

2. Play up your child's behavior, exaggerate it. Sometimes my son dramatically reacts to his siblings touching him. It's as if he's been poked with a cattle prod. It often triggers me - the dramatic reaction, the (seemingly unnecessarily) negative interaction between siblings. But I know underneath there is a desire to be seen/heard/observed. So the other day I asked him to touch me gently on my arm, and I acted like he had hit me really hard. I started calling for an ambulance, and I did an over-dramatic, drawn-out cry. (Now, this has the potential to feel like making fun, instead of playing with. So, I gauged my son's reaction carefully and I made sure it was clear I was playing, that this was a game - with the need for a doctor and an ambulance - and he loved it. And as we continue this game, I am checking in to see if its fun and playful for him.) I know it's working because he keeps asking to play it. What does 'working' mean, in this context? It means we're connecting; it means we are both aware that this game we're playing acknowledges that other 'game' (him being hurt by a soft touch) happened but wasn't quite the right fit for us. This new version of the game gives us a chance to connect in a way that feels more constructive and fun, while also conveying a message: I see that you need to find your boundaries with your siblings, I'm here to help with that and help you find constructive ways to express those boundaries


3. Become a baby ANYTHING. "Wah wah, I'm a baby dishwasher." Our preschooler often finds random things to 'babify'; I think one time he was a baby toaster? My husband and I have acknowledged sometimes tiring of this game, but we play it with love because it brings pleasure to our son. Last week I got to teach and play with a group of preschoolers at our summer Camp Create Play Explore. As soon as we became baby spiders we all started connecting and found our jive playing together. We were an entire spider family that needed food and sleep, all while we were climbing in a spider web at the playground. Their eyes glimmered while seeing me as a baby and needing their help. 

Again, some of these attempts may feel a tad forced or uncomfortable at first, particularly if you aren't feeling in a playful mood. It gets easier the more you do it, and having 'success' through connecting and getting through tense moments will motivate you to try it again and again.



Keren Gudeman

Minneapolis, Minnesota