Tom Burns wasn’t particularly good at improv comedy, but improv did teach him a valuable lesson that has served him well as a father.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but, like most middle-aged Americans with a liberal arts degree, I was briefly in a shitty improv group in college.
My improv cohorts and I played theatre sports, sniped at each other, and threw around words like “Del Close” and “The Harold” like we actually knew what we were talking about. I quit after a year once I realized that the group wasn’t exactly bringing out the best in me, but, like most comedy nerds who ever attended a UCB show, I left thinking that I really understood what improv was about. And, though it pains me to say it, I do think that my borderline-remedial understanding of the tenets of improv comedy has actually made me a better parent. Let me explain…
When you take an undergraduate improv class, one of the first things you learn—aside from which members of your class are naturally unfunny—is the concept of “YES, AND…” It’s one of the most basic rules of improvisational theatre and Tina Fey explains it in her book, Bossypants, much better than I could:
The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. …
Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you. …
The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own.
Personally, I think keeping those rules in mind can be incredibly effective when you’re trying to reason with your kids.
To be clear, I am NOT saying “ALWAYS agree with whatever your kids say.” If your kid says, “I want to jump off the roof with my cardboard jetpack,” you probably should NOT respond with, “YES, AND you should be holding knives!”
The thing to consider is that kids hear the word “No” all the time. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Often it’s for their own protection, but think about how frustrated you’d be if you were surrounded by authority figures who were constantly shutting doors in your face. And, most of the time, kids are just looking for some acknowledgement that they’ve been heard.
BUT—I can hear you too, parents—WHAT if your kid IS asking for something insane? Or for something you really don’t want to do? Just because you’re responding with openness, it doesn’t mean you actually have to do whatever your kid wants. You’re still the ultimate authority. You’re just saying that their initial idea has value and you’re opening up a new direction to grow that idea.
“Hey Dad, Can we have cookies for lunch?”
While it would be so easy to say “No” to that request, I would try to say something like:
“Oh wow, that would be great, right? I wonder if we could make a sandwich with cookies for the bread? Ooh, that might be too sweet. Yeah, that might ruin it. Let’s just stick with a normal sandwich and maybe we can have a cookie after.”
I wouldn’t say, “Yes, let’s only eat Oreos for lunch,” but I would try to acknowledge that the idea has merit—it IS a fun suggestion—and then take the idea somewhere else.
I also found the improv approach to be really effective when my daughter went through the all-too-familiar “princess craze.” When I’d hear something like:
“Dad, I want to play princesses! Can I be a princess?”
“Yes! Great idea! Have you heard of Princess Diana? That’s Wonder Woman and she’s a princess-superhero who can kick Superman’s butt! Or have you heard of Princess Marie Curie? She was a scientist-princess who…”
OK, the “Princess Marie Curie” thing is flat-out lying, but you can see what I’m doing. If my daughter had said “I want to play princesses” and I said “No,” it wouldn’t have accomplished anything. It wouldn’t make my kid NOT want to play with princesses. It would just make me the person who’s denying her access to princesses. I’d be their common enemy, which would make her love them all the more.
Instead, I acknowledged that “Yeah, playing princess sounds like fun” (because it is—it’s creative, imaginative play) and then I followed my affirmation with a new direction for the game to go in (“If we’re going to play princesses, let me try to steer you towards princesses that don’t suck…”).
Maybe she’d accept that new direction and maybe she wouldn’t, but, regardless, the important thing is to keep using that positive reinforcement to move her in the best direction possible. In my experience, it works so much better than just saying “NO.”
But saying “Yes, And…” to your kids DOES NOT mean that you’re being permissive or weak. It just means you’re responding with positivity first, respecting their ideas, and trying to guide them in better directions by being their ally instead of their enemy. And, if I’m being frank, it’s also an amazing tool for manipulating them without starting an argument, which, yeah, is kind of evil, but it’s also very, very effective.
“Yes, And…” is, without a doubt, the most valuable thing I took away from my shortlived improv career (along with the knowledge that I am impatient, hammy, and a poor singer). So, if you want to do the impossible and actually put your liberals arts degree to some practical use, try “Yes, And”-ing your kids and witness the weird, wonderful places your children can take you, if you’re open to taking their lead.
Credit: Image—Alex Erde/Flickr