Parenting as Improvisational Theatre

My tendency is to plan ahead of time, then try to stick to that plan. I’m not really a make-it-up-as-you-go kind of guy unless I make a conscious effort. That spills over into how I parent Eli. Kids, especially high-energy four-year-olds like Eli, throw off questions and requests and a whole lot of chatter. I field the questions okay, it’s the requests I have trouble with. “No, let’s not take that ball into the bath.” “We’d better skip chasing for now — I just got home.” “Let’s leave that plastic plate alone. You don’t really need to play with it.”

Sometimes I say no because what Eli’s asking for is dangerous or unhealthy. Sometimes it’s because I’m in the middle of something and don’t want to go get what he’s asking for when he’s perfectly capable of going and getting it himself. But most of the time I’m saying no reflexively.

In Keith Johnstone’s excellent book “Impro,” he has a section on blocking and accepting in improvisational theatre. A big rule of improv is that you should accept whatever your partner throws out instead of blocking him or her.

A: Augh!
B: What’s the matter?
A: I’ve got my trousers on back to front.
B: I’ll take them off.
A: No!

The scene immediately fizzles out. A blocked B because he didn’t want to get involved in miming having his trousers taken off, and having to pretend embarrassment, so he preferred to disappoint the audience.

He goes on to explain why some actors do this: they’re initially rewarded for the behavior.

A problem for the improviser is that the audience are likely to reward blocking at the moment it first appears.

‘Your name Smith?’
‘No!’
(Laughter)

They laugh because they enjoy seeing the actors frustrated, just as they’ll laugh if the actors start to joke…. The improviser…gags or blocks at his peril, although the immediacy of the audience’s laughter is likely to condition him to do just this.

When I say no to Eli, I’m rewarded. I don’t have to do any additional work. I don’t have to think about what he’s asking. Most critically, I know that saying yes might end up with him hurt or something broken. Chances are I won’t go wrong by saying no.

Long term, though, I’m teaching Eli that no is the default state. When you ask for something, chances are you won’t get to do it. That’s a terrible lesson! But it’s the one I’m teaching without meaning to.

This week I’ve decided to start saying yes to Eli whenever I can. He’ll have enough experiences where he’s blocked by other people without me piling on just because I’m lazy.

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