Improv and Parenting

Photo by Roberto De Vido

Previously, I wrote a post on Improv and Marriage and soon after, began thinking about how I can apply Tina Fey’s Rules of Improv to raising kids. As a fairly new parent, I’m always eager to learn better ways to understand, respond to, and connect with my daughter Ruby, and just to be a better mother in general.

My husband insists I am not a new parent anymore, but I often still feel new to the job especially when I see Ruby grow and change so quickly! Parenting, like improv and marriage, is also characterized by uncertainty and change. Just when I thought I had something figured out, found something that works, or have a routine going, her needs, habits, and whims change. I couldn’t wait for her to sleep through the night, but when she did, she now has fewer and shorter naps (therefore, fewer quiet time for me). I had to adjust to her being able to roll, then crawl, then coast, then walk, and now run faster than I could, what with my pregnant belly. One week she loves prunes and can’t get enough of them. Next week she snubs the big bag of prunes I bought. She was crazy about Goodnight Moon and wants it read 4-5 times a day, but now prefers to sit through longer text like Green Eggs and Ham – which I am pestered to read 4-5 times a day resulting in a bout of laryngitis.

The Rules of Improv proved to be insightful enough to have broad applications across other areas of life, including parenting.

Rule #1: Agree and say yes.

I don’t think this rule means agreeing and saying “yes” to everything my daughter wants.  As a parent, I do not believe in being best friends with Ruby nor seeking her approval. I am her mother – I set boundaries, I demonstrate the unfairness of life, and I provide her with security so that though she may be most dissatisfied right now (and make her unhappiness known loud and clear  to the world), she can someday grow to be a happy, successful, and confident adult. I saw this quotation from Robert A. Heinlein on someone’s Facebook wall a while back, “Do not handicap your children by making their lives easy.” My husband had a similar philosophy raising his now 18-year old daughter, “If she was not disappointed with me at least once a day, then I am not doing my job as a father.” The thing is, as hard as it is to believe, children actually seek those limitations. I have caught Ruby a number of times testing how far she could go before I call her on her behavior. One time she climbed up the table while we were eating and I told her to get off. Next she tried to put her legs up, looking at me with big round eyes as if to say “How about this?” Next, just her tippy toes peeked from the edge of the table and she looked at me again as if asking, “And this? Is this okay?”.  And when I do set limitations, it tells her that “Mommy pays attention to me” and “Mommy cares about me and is looking out for me.”

That said, saying “yes” as applied to parenting means being present to my child. What is her reality like and how does it differ from mine? It is often so tempting to make Ruby comply with my way of doing things – my pace, my schedule, my priorities – just because it is more convenient for me. She, on the other hand, doesn’t take ordinary things for granted. Everything is new, and interesting, and deserves her attention. She wants to see things up close, and touch them and take her sweet time walking. She is playful and she often invites me to play along with her. It takes effort to forego my adultness for a while and say “yes” to her by asking what she sees, responding to her interests, yielding to her tugs of attention, and affirming her needs. And often, as with improv, my “yes” is rewarded with a a renewed sense of wonder and fascination with the world.

Rule #2: Say yes, and.

Ruby is currently going through a phase in which she calls out “Mama” every few seconds. It drives me nuts, especially when the “Mama” is accompanied by insistent poking.

While riding the bicycle and she’s strapped to my back:

“Mama!” (points to the stoplight )

“Mama!” (points to another kid’s tricycle)

“Mama!” (points to a playground)

“Mama! Mama!” (with urgency; points to an airplane)

“Mama! Mama!” (with excitement; points to the moon)

It is so tempting to just say “Yes, Honey” or “Uh-huh” and hope that she can quickly move on to a quieter, reflective phase. But that is exactly the opposite of what Rule #2 calls for. “Yes, and” entails a plus – don’t just give minimal acknowledgement but make an effort to engage. I would say things like, “Yes, Honey, isn’t that going to be a beautiful round moon tonight? Does it remind you of your favorite book Goodnight Moon?” And Ruby replies enthusiastically, “Ung!” (meaning “Yes, Mommy! Exactly!”). It feels silly sometimes to think up stuff to say to her, not to mention, to think up new stuff every time she points to the same things, but responding with “Yes, and” makes my daughter feel that her thoughts and feelings are important and so is she.

For older children, “Yes, and” means not being satisfied with their plain “yes” answers (ex., when you ask them how school was). As parents, the effort must come from us to ask more detailed questions about their day, to pay attention, and remember. This is one thing that I really admire about my husband. He knows who his daughter’s best friends are (and what their parents do!), her favorite subjects in school, foods she doesn’t like, her past times and hobbies, what kinds of movies she likes to watch, how she spends money, what her dreams are. She was a member of the track team in middle school and when they didn’t have a coach, my husband went to her school every week to coach her team. That definitely is the plus called for by “Yes, and”.

Rule #3: Make statements.

There is a time for questions, and there is a time for statements. Questions are easier because you don’t have to exert effort and think of what to say. Plus, how many of us feel silly or even foolish prattling on to little ones who can barely respond to our musings? But logically, we as parents (especially of younger children) need to do more of the talking because we know more and have the vocabulary to express our thoughts and feelings. Tina Fey says that when you ask questions, you put the burden on the other person. Ever since she was an infant, I would talk and share what’s happening and what I’m doing. Right now, Ruby enjoys pointing at things and looking at me expectantly as if to say “Mommy, what is this called? What is it for? What does this do?” And when I tell her, she looks supremely satisfied. The thing is, she actually understands and remembers what I say. One time, I babbled on about my c-section scar and how the doctor cut me open and pulled her out. The next time she saw the scar, she pointed to the scar and then to herself, making the connection. There must be some research out there that confirms that kids whose parents talk to them more have higher language skills and do better in school.

Rule #4: There are no mistakes, only opportunities. 

I also love this rule as applied to parenting. I often question myself whether I’m doing the right thing and whether Ruby will turn out okay, and Rule #4 is very reassuring. Even though something may feel like a mistake, it is, at the very least, a learning opportunity.

I think as parents, we tend to be overly anxious and anticipate “mistakes” even before they happen. I always remember what my chemistry teacher back at university observed: Children nowadays seem to get sick more easily, most likely due to our increased germophobia.  Many products boast of antibacterial properties, from fabric softeners, to bath soaps, to pillows, to socks, and even toys. Not only do we deprive our kids from the opportunity to build up their immune systems, but we also create super germs that are more resistant to antibiotics.

Our kids, especially babies, look small and fragile but the truth is, they are hardier than we think.  Usually when Ruby trips, she would just pick herself up, dust off her knees and hands and run again as if nothing happened. Once she was running downhill and fell on her face and bruised up her nose and forehead pretty badly (bad as defined by the presence of blood). She cried for a a minute or two and then went right on playing. If we never let our kids run free and take reasonable amount of risks, they would never learn to be safe or have the chance to acquire essential life skills.

In a way, we have to trust our children so that they will have those opportunities. Lately I’ve been wary of Ruby getting too near other kids because she tends to randomly hit, or pinch them, or pull their clothes and hair. My husband and I stand guard near her and it looks like we’re protecting her but we’re actually protecting other kids. We were at a party one night and there was a frail five year old boy in a wheelchair. Ruby approached the boy and my husband and I were ready to pull her away but for some reason we hesitated and waited what Ruby would do. She went up to the boy and looked up at his face which was partially covered with his cap. She gave him one of her signature big smiles and said, “Hi!” When he didn’t respond, she held his knees and went up closer and said another “Hi!” to him. It was one of the most heartwarming Ruby moments in which she really shone. And how we would have lost this opportunity had we been extra paranoid about her making a “mistake”.

6 responses to “Improv and Parenting

  1. Sherilyn, I love this! The improv rules really are rules for life — for marriage and for parenting — because, honestly, who knows what’s coming next? Life really is improv. We adults can forget that and think we’re in charge and can control things. Children, though, aren’t burdened with that misunderstanding, and they can teach us. I’d love to repost this on my blog. Would that be okay?

    • Hi Allison, Thank you for your heartwarming note. I am honored that you want to repost. Please do! All the best Allison. By the way, we’re expecting our second this December!

  2. Nice real life application of Improv rules. Both your marriage and parenting posts were good reminders for me.

  3. When u r tired, down, or worn out , tell her how u feel. Tell her u need to rest and tell her it’s time to change role playing. she is going to be your mom for an hour or two ( or half a day). Let her takes care, sing, or read to u. or just let u rest or sleep. No guarantee that will work. That will be hard now with CHUCKIE around. When reading, Ask her what would she do, let her do some of the talking (let her participate, let her imagination soar) by asking, if she is one of the character in the book. What would she do. f

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