Parenting Improv – it’s ok to suck on those nothing-goes-as-planned days
No one wakes up in the morning saying “today I’m going to suck”! Yet, every day we are inches away from an epic fail – saying exactly the wrong thing, over-reacting to a minor inconvenience, misunderstanding an innocent affront, or losing it without any chance of a do-over. And that’s life without kids! Now, add in exploding poops, tantrums, nose slime and the general messiness of life-with-kids, and you might agree that it’s time to rewrite all those perfect parenting advice books.
I have new advice for parents and the grownups who live with kids in the confusing world of kid contradictions and uncontrollable chaos – dare to suck! Being a parent requires courage to take the risk every day. Take a risk to be the person in charge who is ready-and-able to lead, guide, teach and love one child or many children to being a capable and independent, possibly happy, mostly loving adult. Really? It’s a honor, a privilege and a gift but there will always be times when you cannot succeed or you do not want the job. It’s exhausting. It’s overwhelming. Some moments are hijacked with anxiety, doubt and guilt. And you will be less than perfect. You will be human, unavoidably, imperfectly human. Because, repeat after me, “perfect parents don’t raise perfect kids; they raise kids who feel not good enough“.
So, instead of looking for certainty, I say look for inspiration. Instead of trying to follow a script that has all the right choices, the most clever words and that perfect happy ending, flip that script and write your own way through the messes and the drama. Give yourself permission to be an improv parent.
Children are truly the best improv partners because they live in the moment bending reality to fit their needs and goals. Usually, kids begin as The Pigeon trying to “drive to bus” which doesn’t usually turn out very well. They need a steady and thoughtful hand steering with them. Problem with kids is that they don’t follow your script – remember they can’t read yet! So, the grownups need to learn flexibility, adaptability, and perseverance along with humor and creativity. Parents who let go of one-right-way parenting become the masters of improv, saner and happier.
Here’s your Intro to Improv – 4 tried-n-true improv techniques to help through the messiness of life-with-kids.
1. Yes and: “Yes and” is the improv alternative to “No but”. “No but” is resistance to meeting your child in the moment. It is those times when you want your child to be acting another way, you want your child to do what you want, to stop being stuck. “No” is frustration and impatience. No, don’t do that, but I still love you.
“Yes and” is an entirely different message that begins with “See Me Hear Me Love Me“. I see you. I understand and connect with you in this frustrating, challenging moment. And, we will find our way through this together. Being “in it” together is the foundation of improv. It isn’t saying “yes” you can burn down the house or torture the cat. It is the connection though that says I will be with you when you make terrible choices and inexplicable mistakes.
2. Listen: Listening is another way to stay connected in the present moment. Instead of thinking of what you’re going to do next, pay really close attention to what your child is doing. Sit closer, make eye contact, collect data before deciding how you’re going to react. Remember that other truism: you are smarter than your child but not when you spin out in reactivity and desperation. Pause – Wait, instead of reacting. Simply changing what your child expects you to do (all those negative attention reinforcements), changes the direction of that old script.
Experienced improv teams have also developed instincts to avoid getting stuck in dead ends. Parents with young children can develop that instinct by asking questions that pause the moment and give your child a voice in the situation. When you ask orienting questions, honestly listen for the answer – what’s going on here? what do you need? yikes, how can we get out of this mess? Listening means giving your child a voice without giving them reckless power.
3. Commit: No one-right-way, or no perfect parenting answer, can easily lead to floundering chaos. If you aren’t sure what works, it’s easy to grasp at every straw and frantically try every idea, every recommendation, from every parenting book and every friend in your social network. Crowd-sourcing works but only as info gathering from various points of view. Eventually, you must commit.
Choose a response and stick with it. Sell it! Don’t let ambiguity, guilt and uncertainty dictate your parenting style (unless you’re playing for laughs). Believe in yourself and in your child’s ability to meet you halfway. Don’t ask your child’s “permission”; ask for your child’s participation – in moving forward, in learning, in solving a problem.
4. Dare to Suck: This one is my absolute favorite! And there is no improv without risk and uncertainty. If we want to raise innovative learners, confident problem solvers, fearless risk-takers, then we must be the best role-models of resilience. Raising kids who will be successful in a quickly changing world requires learning from mistakes and stretching the boundaries of what we know. Dare to suck means believing in myself, in my current abilities and my future potential.
Dare to suck also means have the tools to face the judgyness of parenting in a fishbowl. There are no vaccines to protect against the critics. But there is power in being daring and there are huge rewards. Surround yourself by your best cheerleaders who can remind you that you are more than enough: smart enough, creative enough and most definitely loving enough.
In future articles, we will try applying these improv techniques to everyday family challenges and developmental struggles. In the meantime, trust that you got this and you’re not alone.