What My Son the Thespian Taught Me About Parenting

How did two non-extroverts produce an outgoing, theatrically gifted kid?
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20th Century Fox Television

On his last day of summer camp, my nine-year-old son came to greet me wearing some sort of cylindrical frilly paper and grass hat. He told me he'd won it.

"Was there some sort of drawing?" I asked.

"No," he said. "It was a dance-off." He gave me his best serious expression. "It is drama camp," he said.

In case it's not clear already, my son is a big, bouncing, incandescently charming thespian. He dances. He sings. He goes to drama camp and wins prizes in lip-syncing and the talent show and the random dance off, and pretty much everything he enters. Last year at the end of camp the counselors pulled me aside to tell me cheerfully that he was a big old ham. Again, this is the drama camp counselors telling me that my son is a ham even by what I presume are the high standards of hamminess among drama camp counselors. Random acquaintances pull me aside to tell me earnestly that he should be in advertisements.

I'm not writing this to brag. Or, okay, I am writing this to brag, because who doesn't like bragging about their son? But I'm also writing it to say -- what the hell? Where did this come from? My wife, god bless her, would as soon punch you in the face as stand in front of a television camera. I'm not completely averse to performing -- I have fond memories of playing the Tin Man in a camp production when I was about my son's age (I wore a silver-painted box so big that I couldn't get up onto the stage -- Dorothy and the Scarecrow had to break character to help me up.) And, obviously, here I am writing for a living. I have some affinity for the spotlight.

But I can assure you, nobody but nobody was grabbing my parents and telling them to put me in advertisements. I was not winning dance-offs. I would say I have two left feet if that would not be an insult to most people's non-dominant extremities. I am less graceful and agile at 40 than I was at 10, but even my heights of grace and agility were not anything that anyone would want to award a frilly grass and paper hat.

And yet, despite all the algorithms of genetics and environment, there's my son dancing, singing, and taking the spotlight whenever it is offered. Not to mention bantering with campmates of all genders and ages.  The extent to which I did not dance is dwarfed by the extent to which I did not banter. Especially not with girls. Somehow, my wife and I have spawned, not just a thespian, but an extrovert.

I have to admit that, if you had asked me whether I wanted a thespian for a son, I probably would have said, "no, thanks." Give me a scientist or a mathematician; something with high long-term earning prospects so he can look after his graceless, non-extroverted father in his dotage.  And even beyond the salary issue, as a firmly committed cynical grump, dealing with bouncy extroverted thespians can be a little wearing. No, thank you, I'm sitting over here being cranky--do not amuse me, please.

And in fact, as my wife says, it hasn't been all bunnies and sunshine. I live in Chicago, and I've avoided Second City for decades, so my son's constant stand-up comedy routines feel like some sort of cruel revenge enacted by the spurned spirit of improv. And my wife and I are just cynical and mean-spirited enough that when our son appears in the occasional play that provides spiritual uplift and life lessons, our spirits are not necessarily uplifted. Quite the contrary.

So, potential life of penury, stand-up-comedy, enforced spiritual uplift -- there are downsides.  But they pale in comparison to watching him sitting and waiting for his cue and unconsciously mouthing everyone else's words because he's memorized all the parts. Or pulling up to camp and having the counselor greet him by hollering out, "Hey, you!" with a rising drama-kid break, and having him holler back, like he's taking a cue, "Hey, you!"

Part of what's great about it is, of course, just that it's fun to see your kid do something well, and to see him love doing something well. Part of why he's good at drama is because you can just feel the joy coming off him when he's performing. Everybody likes to see their child happy.

But another part of what's fun about watching him be a thespian is the fact that being a thespian is so thoroughly not something I did, or am. Obviously, it's great too when your child loves something you love -- teaching him to swim was one of the high points of my life. But there's also something special about realizing that he's going to be able to do all these things you couldn't do, or didn't even try.  Or, even more than that, just realizing that he's not you, or even a combination of you and your spouse, but is instead this whole different person, center stage in his own life, who you get to love.  

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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