If you think about it, parenting really is similar to theater. In the space of two hours, you can experience comedy, drama, tragedy, and maybe even a nude scene or two — depending on the age of your child. There is, however, one critical difference: in parenting there is no script. Life sure would be easier if there were, but it just doesn't work that way. Try as you might, no scene you envision with your child will go exactly according to plan. That's because kids have an uncanny ability to shake things up, to bring about the element of surprise, to steal the scene right out from under you.
This brings to mind one of my favorite TV shows, "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" If you haven't seen it, you are really missing out. It is a show based on improvisational (or "improv") theater where the actors never quite know what will be thrown their way. The results are often hilarious and always unexpected. These professional actors make incredibly difficult tasks look easy up on stage. They are so creative, so calm, so talented. What you might not know is that they have all been well trained in the rules of improv acting. These rules allow them to access their creativity and turn any scene, no matter how strange or unexpected, into something great. So, with that in mind, I though it might be a good idea to take a look at a few of these rules and see how they might apply to what we do every day.
"Rules of Improv"
- Keep the scene moving forward by saying "Yes, and ..." rather than saying "No!" The worst thing you can do in improv is to negate what someone brings to the scene. You are killing any chance of progressing the conversation. In parenting, this rule is particularly helpful for those times when your child is whiny or complaining.When it's chore time and your little darling moans about how disgusting it is to clean the bathroom, there is simply no point in negating him. He is right after all — cleaning the bathroom is unpleasant — so say "yes, and". "Yes, honey, cleaning the bathroom is awful, and I think the toilets are the worst part." There's no gauntlet for your child to pick up. There's no battle to fight — there is just a bathroom to clean ... as disgusting as it may be.
- Always check your impulses and retain focus. Improv demands intense focus and concentration. We can't do that if we allow ourselves to get sidetracked. Kids are masters at hooking us in to arguments, and if we're not careful here, we'll end up functioning on their level of maturity. When you find yourself really wanting to lash out or throw your hands in the air, reign in your impulses. It's ok to want to go ballistic; it's just not ok to actually go ballistic. By staying focused on how you want to behave, you can quiet those impulses and allow your principles to say a few things.
- Never enter a scene unless you are needed. Way too often, when our kids are complaining about something, we take that as our cue to jump in and fix the situation. We either "set them straight" and let them know just how easy they have it, or we lighten their load in order to shut them up ... I mean, help them out. But, just like in improv, that can kill the natural momentum of the scene. Kids are just like us in some respects. Many times, they simply want to vent. Give them space and hang back a bit to see if they can work out the scene on their own. The same goes for sibling arguments. Encourage them to work things out without your intervention and they'll become much more self reliant in the process.
- When in doubt, break the routine. If you find yourself in a position where you've tried to keep the scene moving and nothing seems to be working — do something totally unexpected to shake things up. If you're having the same battle with your daughter over getting dressed that you've had each morning for the past two weeks, I've got a newsflash for you: whatever you're doing isn't working. So do something totally out of character. Switch roles. Let her pick out your clothes and wear them, no matter what. Or better yet, you put on her clothes since they're not getting much use in her room. Trying something different even if it is silly — maybe especially if it is silly — is a great way to break the monotony. After all, a good case of the giggles makes everything seem a little easier.
Some of the greatest scenes in movies come out of improvisation. Those actors who specialize in this form make their fellow actors look better and they make it all look easy. But, just because they make it look easy doesn't mean that it is. As you can see, good improv takes hard work and self discipline. I'm pretty certain that the same is true of parenting. So, this week, give a few of these rules a shot and I think you'll have to agree with Joey Novick, comedian and improv teacher, that, "Spontaneity. Creativity. Increased intelligence. Emotional connections. Being in the moment. It is impossible for all these things not to be there when improvising."