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How Improvisation Class Made Me a Better Parent

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by Heidi Lindelof

I am standing in a circle of strangers yelling at the top of my lungs, “AWWWWW, BUDDHA!  BIG BUDDHA!  BIG BUDDHA!  BIG BUDDHA!”  My palms are sweaty.  My heart is racing.  My facial muscles are starting to spasm from the smile I’ve been holding for over an hour.  No, I am not tripping on a hallucinogen.  I am in an IMPROV class.  And I am exhilarated.

Several months ago, my husband and I attended a retreat where adults way smarter than I gathered to discuss everything from Feminism to Big Data to The Meaning of Life.  When I looked over the list of sessions, I knew I was in for an incredible experience.  But I wasn’t expecting the session on IMPROV to bust me wide open.

The 90-minute gathering morphed me from a self-judging, type-A, over-thinker into a silly, trusting body ready to take chances and take flight.  Right then and there, I made a commitment to find a way to take what I had done in that session (trust my gut, be open to what others were giving me, and not shut down because something seems scary or difficult) and implement it in my everyday life!

Then we went home.

I got busy.  I got distracted.  Okay, let’s be honest.  I got scared.

There was no way I was going to pursue this.  How would that even work?  What was I going to do – call The Groundlings and sign up for a class?  I live in LA, where real actors with real talent are real funny!  I’m a 41 year-old mom for goodness sake.  What would people say?!  My friends.  My family.  My husband’s colleagues!  And finally, how could I justify goofing off for three hours every Saturday when I should be home with my family?  At the end of the day, it was all just a ridiculous fantasy.

So with that, I put it at the very bottom of my “One Day I Might” list.

Several months later, my six-year-old son and I were discussing the upcoming Read Aloud Celebration at his school.  He mentioned a few of his friends were signing up to read books to the entire class and that I must promise NOT to sign him up!  Now, I know Van loves to read.  Is he stellar at it?  No.  Not yet.  But he’s proud of himself when he tries.  And he beams with light when he succeeds.  So I told him he certainly doesn’t HAVE to do it, but I think he should give it a shot.

I cheerfully suggested, “I bet you’ll have fun.  You’ll be surrounded by supportive friends and teachers.  You’ll feel terrific when you finish.”

“No!”  He was adamant.  “I’ll look stupid.”

My heart screeched to a stop.  And the next day, I signed up for an IMPROV class.

I’ve always known children watch and mimic their parents’ behavior.  But I always thought of it more in the ‘we better not cuss or be impolite to the hostess at the restaurant, because our kids are watching and we don’t want them to cuss or be impolite to the hostess at the restaurant’ sort of way.  This was not that.  This was deep and true behavior modeling.  And if I wanted my son to do all the things I had preached, (be okay with discomfort … do what makes you happy, not what makes you popular … it’s better to try and fail then never to try at all) then by golly, I better start doing them myself!

So for ten Saturdays, I committed to standing in front of twenty people pretending to be at police headquarters, or in the Laundromat, or on a spaceship while I riffed and volleyed lines with my Improv partners.  I tried on accents, made up Shakespeare and became a kangaroo.  I laughed.  I trusted.  I messed up.  I had fun.  I felt weird.  I tried.  And tried again.  And in the end, the most unexpected thing happened … I became a better parent.

The class I signed up for because I wanted to do something for myself quickly developed into something with incredible benefits to my entire family.  As it turns out, the “rules” of Improv proved to be easily translated to my daily life:

The Rules of Improvisation:

YES, AND….  If there is one golden rule of Improv, it’s this.  The message is to stay positive, affirm what your partner is telling you and add information.  When you say no, you shut them down.  And thus everyone in the scene feels deflated and has no place to turn, except to argue back.  When I heard this I thought, “this is not only the standard of good Improv, but of good parenting.”

An example:  my son says, “I want ice cream!”  My typical answer:  “Honey, you had ice cream yesterday.  We’re not having it two days in a row.”  My son with a whine, “Pahleeeeeeeeeez?!”  Let’s try it again the Improv way.  My son: “I want ice cream!”  Me:  “Yeah, I enjoyed taking you out for ice cream yesterday.  That was fun.  Let’s do it again next week.”  YES, it worked.  AND, he genuinely felt like his request was acknowledged.  AND he has something to look forward to.

NO SELF-JUDGMENT   During our Improv exercises, we were never allowed to say things like, “That was stupid.”  Or, “I’m no good at this.”  Or, “Ugh, why did I say that?!”  Accepting the fact that there is no wrong answer and that you aren’t being judged, allows you to feel free to try.  I find it so upsetting when my son puts himself down or won’t try something for fear that he’s going to get it wrong.  The best way I can get him to accept his flaws and try, try again, is to SHOW him – by not putting myself down and laughing off my mistakes.

STAY ON A ONE-LINE DIET   Going on and on and on can make you lose your audience – whether you’re onstage performing or at home with your family.  Make your point and trust they’re listening.

REALLY LISTEN TO WHAT YOUR PARTNER IS TELLING YOU   Once my Improv partner said, “I like your new car.  Even though I know you stole it!”  Every bone in my body wanted to yell, “I did not!”  But our teacher not only pointed out that we MUST say, “Yes, and…” but that my partner had just given me a gift.  They had offered a jumping off point for who my character could be (in this case – a thief!) So when it came time to sign up for summer camp and my son said, “I’m not good at sports,” I wanted to cry out, “That’s not true!”  (What is it about us that makes us want to show our kids how great they are by forcing them to do the thing they are clearly telling us they don’t like?!) But I took a breath and said, “You enjoy other things.  Let’s see what other options there are.”  Van is enrolled in Summer Science and he couldn’t be more thrilled.

EVERYBODY BAKES THE CAKE TOGETHER or LEARN TO YIELD TO ANOTHER WAY OR A BETTER IDEA   It’s not all about you.  In Improv, you must trust that your partners onstage (or your family members at home) have good ideas, too.  Try them.  You don’t have to come up with it all yourself.  They will rise to the occasion, feel good about themselves and often be more open to your suggestions as a result.

HAVE A POINT OF VIEW AND BE CLEAR ABOUT IT   As a character onstage, if you constantly change your point of view, it’s confusing for your Improv partner.  Likewise, kids need to know where their parents stand on issues at home.  While it’s important to be flexible, our kids need us to be consistent with our messaging, so they can feel safe.

And most importantly…

HAVE FUN   Every Saturday there were several moments in the three-hour class that I would wonder, what on Earth am I doing here?  It’s true: I’m totally goofing off for three hours when I should be with my family.  Or I could be getting work done.  How many things do we do in our lives that are 100% PURE fun?  I honestly cannot think of very many.  I found something that makes me laugh – hard – and I did it.  It not only brought more joy into my life, (and thus my home!) but gave my son the example that even as you get older and have more responsibilities, fun and joy are things we are allowed to have forever.

What is on your “One Day I Might” list?  What are we teaching our kids if we never go for it?  And really: WHY NOT DO IT?!

Please share your thoughts/anecdotes/musings about this topic below in the comments section.  We love hearing from you!

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series,  along with our beautiful children’s booksappsmusichandmade dolls, and more.

Posted in: Parental Wisdom, Happiness, Humor, Mindfulness, Modern Parenting