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What does improvisation comedy have to do with parenting?
They key to good parenting, or any relationship, is communication. And it turns out that the key to good comic improvisation is communication.
I learned this from Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants. This talented comedian and TV producer started her career at Second City, the Chicago improvisation club. What is improvisation? Two people on a bare stage: no props, sets, costumes or even written dialogue. Their job is to make something up together. The only way they can do this is to not let the other guy down or you will bomb too. Their goal is to be excruciatingly funny.
Parents and children make a family together. Everyone in the family must pay attention to the other guy. The goal is to have a happy, functional family. (Of course, a little humor never hurts hurt.)
Tina Fey tells her readers the rules of improvisation. The first rule is you must always agree and always say yes. She points out that in real life you won’t always agree but you must always respect what the other person has created.
In real parenting obviously you don’t say yes to, or agree with, everything your child says. But to always respect what your child says is a pretty good rule. Especially when what is said reflects feelings. In the olden days when New Baby arrived parents were apt to squelch Older Child’s feelings pretty good. Parent: “This is your new baby brother.” Child: “I don’t like him!” Parent: “Of course you like him, he’s your brother! Be nice.”
Today savvy parents are more likely to say, “I understand how you feel. It will take a while to get used to having a brother. Can you help me take care of him? We can do that together.” No squelching. Feelings are acknowledged and Older Child is given a chance to be needed.
Tina’s second rule of improvisation is “…not only to say yes but YES AND.” On stage that keeps the improvisation thing going and gets laughs. At home? This kind of talking will keep the lines of communication open.
It’s important to not close off dialogue. We parents have to be extra careful not to cut children off. Kids think and speak slower than we do and may need more time to say what they mean. Improvisation Rule #2 is good for parent-child interactions as well as comedy. Parents who incorporate the “yes, and” into the dialogue encourage the child to keep talking. There is a big difference between a remark like, “I made up my mind! You can’t go!” and “You want to go to a R movie with your friend and her parents? Tell me what you want to see and why.”
The Third Rule of Improvisation is to make statements rather than asking questions all the time. Making statements is also a rule of communication. “I” statements are a thousand times better than “You always…” or “You never…” statements. When you say to a teen or a spouse, “You never help with the dishes!” the best that can happen is an argument. Instead try, “I feel bad because I have to do the dishes every night. Let’s sit down and write a dishes schedule so we divide the work.”
Families that learn the art of communication not only have a more peaceable kingdom in their home but they model very important life lessons for their children.
Children need to learn how to keep dialogue going and state their feelings clearly. We have the gift and power of language. But we have to remind ourselves, and teach our children, how to talk to each other especially those we love. Tina Fey, a mother herself, would no doubt agree.
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