Jan Faull, MEd, on helping a couple show support for their theater-loving son, and deal with taunts that he's gay.
Q. My 13-1/2-year-old son loves theater. He's spent the past few summers at drama camp, is consistently cast in school plays, and is head of the Forensics team at his middle school. I know he enjoys acting, and I think he has a future in the arts. But we live in a very sports-driven school district, where most of the boys his age are into wrestling, football, and rugby. My son has casually mentioned that some kids tease him for being into theater, and some have called him gay.
My husband and I will love our son no matter who he loves, but we've never brought up the topic because we're afraid to embarrass him. We just want him to know that we support him no matter how he lives his life, and we'd be happy to get involved with his school to stop the teasing if he wants. This is a touchy situation for us. Any thoughts?
A. There are several steps to facing this situation with your son.
First of all, your son needs to know that you're on his side, that you approve of and support his interest in theater and acting. He might be a little embarrassed when you gush over his accomplishments but your apparent pride and love for him will win out. Offer your compliments in private; applaud him in public along with the audience, but don't whoop and holler. Doing so would truly embarrass him.
Second, rehearse with him some quick retorts to the teasing. When the banter begins, your son needs to face the teasers while saying something like, "Don't call me gay; call me Tom Cruise," or, "When your football career ends, I'll still be acting," or, "The world is a stage, I play the part of an actor, you play the part of an athlete." Such responses delivered with confidence and humor often do the trick to stop the mean-spirited ways of such bullying.
If the teasing escalates into harassment, it's time to call the principal. In some states harassment is against the law; therefore these boys need their actions thwarted. Adult supervision is usually the best deterrent to the problem. So encourage your son to stay in the vicinity of a trusted teacher to ward off the aggressive verbal antics of these adolescents.
Third, if you fear your son is struggling with his sexual identity, and not only because acting is out of the norm for most boys in his school, then you have a more complex and sensitive subject to address. Most likely these boys who tease him are grouping actors with homosexuals. The two don't necessarily go together. You can tell your son, "Just because you love the theater and acting doesn't mean you're gay. Nevertheless, gay or straight, we'll love you exactly the same."
Fourth, understand that theater is a wonderful venue for education. Young actors develop presentation skills, while learning to work cooperatively -- rather than competitively -- with their co-actors for the sake of the production. An actor explores the identity of his character, and then himself.
And there's more! Students develop an appreciation of literature. One community theater, which draws heavily from the nearby middle school for actors, presented The Miracle Worker, Inherit the Wind, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Who can deny the rich experience of performing in these plays?
When involved in a production, kids rub shoulders with a wide variety of people, learn about other people's emotions and their own, and either watch or engage in mini-dramas behind stage.
An actor must get outside of himself as he becomes someone else on stage. He explores different experiences and attitudes. Actors don't simply recite lines, they must learn to think on their feet, solve unforeseen theatrical mishaps, and be an innovator for the sake of the production.
Your son will lose any fear of speaking in front of an audience. Plus, he'll learn firsthand the importance of practice and preparation.
If you're worried that your young actor isn't athletic, it's time to recognize the physical aspects of acting. Often it involves dancing, pretend fencing, fighting, and flying. Actors learn about taking risks with safety in mind.
Acting is a multifaceted educational experience. Once you're convinced of its benefits, your can communicate your approval with enthusiasm to your talented son.
Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.
Originally published on HealthyKids.com, July 2005.