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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10 Comments

  1. katre
    on March 28, 2008 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    This is something F and I were duscussing recently, too. I’m also guilty of just reflexively telling Z to stop doing something, even when it’s not something really bad. I like your idea, and I’ll also try to start saying “Yes!” to my kid more often. Let me know how it goes, and I’ll reciprocate.

  2. on March 28, 2008 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    My ability to say, “Yes!” dips dramatically when I am tired. I loose the ability to project ahead to determine if the thing he wants or wants to do will be a problem. Yet another reason to stay well rested while parenting.

  3. Joyous
    on March 28, 2008 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Stay well rested while parenting? Does that exist?

  4. Joyous
    on March 28, 2008 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    When you get right down to it, *life* is improvisational theater. (At least, if mine has a script, no one’s shown it to *me* yet!)

    I have a habit of sticking to plans even when they start to go bad, or when more interesting diversions beckon. Sometimes that’s good–keeps me on task. Sometimes it’s bad–I miss stuff. How to tell which is which is the hard part.

  5. on March 28, 2008 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    The pessimist in me wants to say that no is the default state in life. :chuckle: :sigh:

    I do think saying yes whenever possible is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t make you into a pushover. But I’ve seen y’all parent him, and … y’all are not pushovers.

  6. on March 28, 2008 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Great post. I just need reminded of this about once a week.

    I love those times when against all better judgement you suddenly find yourself saying yes and it spirals into some unbelievably fun adventure/learning thing.

    Something along these lines occurred recently w/ allowing my 4 year old to unscrew a lightbulb – we spent a half hour talking about eclipses/ energy from the sun / planet temperature, etc.

    Hey! Why don’t any of our lamps work any more?

  7. on March 28, 2008 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    What intrigues me about my own parenting is that at work, I encourage my students to stop by if my office door is open and will rarely say “no” to one of their requests. My son wants some of my time at home, and I’m too busy on the computer.

  8. duchess
    on March 31, 2008 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    I think it says a lot about my laziness as a parent, that I find it easier to *not* say no. Saying “no” requires more work – if Z wants to get up and stand on the chair, I have to say No! and walk over and get him down the chair. If Z wants to rearrange the contents of his closet and put it all on the floor, I have to say No!, put everything back, *and* find a different activity to redirect him to.

    I generally have a rule. Is whatever Z trying to do going to get him seriously hurt? (falling off a chair would hurt) If so, I say No. If not (his room would just be cluttered and things out of place), I let him have his way. It keeps him happier, it buys me a few minutes when he is engrossed in an activity, and there’s often a follow-up activity (let’s clean up! game).

    My big problem has been not undermining J – he would say no, and I would say, enh, let him do it, it won’t hurt. Right now, it doesn’t really matter to a two year old, but the two of us need to get in sync before Z is old enough to say, “But Mommy said I could!”

  9. on March 31, 2008 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Yeah, in some cases saying “sure” can make things easier. And we do try to go with natural consequences whenever possible, so it’s not us imposing rules but the universe at large.

  10. on May 6, 2008 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    I agree to you Steph sometimes we have to give what our child wants but with a little reminder to them the consequences of it if something went wrong.

    -Jan