As a parent I want to create opportunities to have meaningful and fruitful conversations with my children. I often use role-playing as a means to accomplish that goal. Role-playing is when you present a situation to your children and ask them what they would do and say as they take on different roles in the story. For example, your child may not know what to do when a peer pressures him to lie or cheat. Role-playing gives children an avenue in which to practice possible responses to difficult situations. It allows children to think with you about situations they haven’t encountered. This helps you understand how your child thinks by providing a window into his fears, into areas he grapples with temptation, and into situations in which he might be caught off guard.

Learning to Apply Biblical Principles

Since kids tend to think in black-and-white terms, it can be challenging for them to wisely navigate the grey areas in life. Children may even understand biblical principles but struggle to apply them in the moment. Role-playing is an opportunity to take teachable principles—demonstrating love, kindness, mercy, forgiveness, safety—and transfer them into different situations. This type of conversation primes children to take one principle and apply it to a multitude of contexts they might not have considered. It helps expand their understanding of the principle as they see it applied to different contexts, and it prepares them for the many situations that may (or may not) happen. As you use this tool, provide a spectrum of possibilities: from the silly, to the obvious, to the confusing, to the dangerous, to a scenario that seems impossible.

For example, it is possible your child could be an aggressor in one situation and then be pressured or attacked in another. Most children are not always the bully or always the sufferer. So develop a scenario where your child is tempted to be an aggressor (maybe with a younger sibling) so that you can speak about love and patience. And then develop a scenario in which your child is the one being hurt and walk through how to stay safe and how to forgive.

Fostering Open Communication

I have found that the more I am willing to talk about the many “What ifs” with children, the more they are willing to say, “I don’t know. What do I do when that happens?” Role-playing becomes an open door for discipleship. By asking your children questions that encourage them to think and make decisions, you help prevent them from being stuck in a situation where they don’t know what to do. Inevitably our children will get stuck, but role-playing and intentional conversation will decrease these occurrences.

As your children mature and learn, don’t forget to encourage them! You don’t always get it right and neither will your kids. It’s important to tell children, “Do your best and we will be proud of you. And if you do get it wrong, we will talk about what happened.” This assures children that they won’t be punished for trying to apply what they’ve learned from you. Often refinement is what is needed, not punishment.

In closing, I encourage you to incorporate these types of conversations into normal everyday life. I have found that our van is one good place to get my kids talking about these “What ifs?” The car is an undistracted place for kids to reveal their thoughts and experiences, and the ride gives you time to help process and interpret those experiences. But anywhere that you can get your kids to talk with you about different situations is a good place! My hope is that parents will be on the lookout for teachable moments and also take on the responsibility of proactively creating opportunities for conversation through activities like role-playing.