Can improv techniques make you a better parent? Improv actors, who happen to be raising children, say yes.
Or rather, “yes, and …”
Using the philosophies of improvisation with your kids can strengthen communication, help you be more present and create a calmer family dynamic. And anyone can do it. Improv actors tell us how.
Don’t fear silence
Andrea Wetherald, an improv coach in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
One of my favorite lessons as an improviser is that silence is not an emergency. In improv, silence does a whole lot for comedic timing and helping something land with the audience, and it also gives the improvisers time to get on the same page with each other. It’s okay to take a moment to have an authentic response instead of just saying the first thing that comes into your head. As for how I parent, this concept is so important and as a foster parent, oh my God—it’s incredibly important. Our daughter was three-and-a-half when she came to us by way of foster care and she’s five-and-a-half now, so she has lots of questions. Remembering that silence is not an emergency has helped me to give her more thoughtful, more kind answers.
Drop your agenda
Nate Smith, an improv teacher at Curious Comedy Theater in Portland, Oregon
We always have an agenda with our kids, especially during bedtime. Our bedtime routine is a surgically precise itinerary filled with teeth brushing, potty going and book reading. Lately, I’ve felt myself having a tough time with our five-year-old who has the focus of a … five-year-old. He’s not being disobedient—he’s just, you know, all over the place. Usually, the book-reading portion of the routine goes something like this: “Chandler, why don’t you pick a book for us to read?” [Chandler does something with his Legos] “Chandler, please pick a book to read.” “Dad who do you think would win? Hulk or the Thing?” And so on.
But tonight, as we got to his room, I decided to drop my agenda. I called on my improv training and “entered the scene.” I started by asking him what book he would like to read, setting the premise. When he responded with a question about the Peter Pan show he saw earlier that night, I abandoned my agenda and just listened to him. I focused on only him and made sure to respond directly to what he was saying. I played the conversation like an improv scene, supporting and heightening his ideas. What ensued was a really nice conversation filled with a lot of giggles. And eventually he said, “Okay, let’s read a book.” Because I took the time to focus on him, he became more focused on what I wanted, too. We can’t always drop our agenda to follow the whims of our children. But the more opportunities you can find to let your kids take the lead, the more willing they will be to follow you back.
Reflect rather than define
Aretha Sills, associate director of Sills/Spolin Theater Works in Los Angeles. She is the granddaughter of Viola Spolin, who is considered the mother of improvisational theater, and the daughter of Paul Sills, who was the founding director of Second City.
My grandmother Viola Spolin talked about an idea called “Follow the Follower,” which comes out of a game called “Mirror.” In “Mirror,” there are two players facing each other—one player is the initiator and the other player mirrors them from head to toe. The goal is to get an exact mirror reflection so it’s as if the players are in the same moment together. You call “Change!” and then the initiator becomes the mirror. Then, at a certain point, you call “Follow the follower!” where no one is initiating but both are reflecting. You suddenly notice, oh, they’re blinking and breathing and then you start blinking and breathing and you reflect each other.
My daughter is about to be six and we often get stuck in this “Yes! No!” thing. In scene improvisation, people come in and they think conflict is really a great way to generate material but it doesn’t go anywhere. Something has to transform for a scene to be created between two people in the present time, and “follow the follower,” the idea of reflecting each other, somehow allows that to happen. So that’s something I do with my daughter. I try to be open and reflect back what she’s experiencing rather than saying, “Oh no, you shouldn’t feel that way.” When I help her feel how she’s feeling, she feels acknowledged. And I have a better understanding of where she’s coming from.
Embrace ‘Yes, and’
In parenting, many improvisers talked about using the philosophy of “Yes, and.” It’s the idea that in an improv scene, you should accept what another actor has said or done and then expand on their line of thinking. Here’s what Wetherald says about it.
“Yes, and” is the most fundamental concept of being willing to collaborate with the people around you because you view them as equals and because you view their ideas—even if you don’t fully understand them yet—as inherently worth your time and creative energy to build with. I try to model it for my kids. But it’s also something we talk about a lot in terms of how they play with other kids. I’ll remind them “we need to say ‘yes, and’” if they’re not playing nice on the playground or something. So they’ve started understanding this concept of collaboration and viewing each other’s ideas as very special and feeling that it’s an honor for someone to be vulnerable enough and willing enough to share their creative impulses with you.