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We have all heard the adage, “The most important things in life are not things.” This sentiment applies to improv and really good scenes. I have also found a way to apply this adage to really good parenting, I hope. As I started taking improv classes, and watching student shows, I noticed scenes got really boring when the performers only talked about stuff and things. This is especially noticeable in so-called “teaching scenes” when the focus is on a process instead of people. The more classes I took, the more I tried to notice what made professional improvisors so interesting in their scenes. One thing stood out: they made statements about their feelings and relationships - the “who’s” and “why’s” of a scene, not just the “what’s.” My favorite scene was set in space. The two players went through an elaborate process to enter a space ship through an air lock. But instead of focusing on the cool process and their surroundings, one player simply stated, “I love you!” This made the scene so much more compelling, and so much funnier! It was a perfect illustration of the principle that focusing on your feelings and the relationship with your scene partner really improves entertainment quality. Of course these principles are true in real life. When we focus on how we treat others, and improving our relationships, everything gets better. After taking improv classes, and watching “the pros,” I realized many of my conversations with my children related to stuff and things. It was only through improv classes that I began to analyze this situation. When I asked my children to quickly do their chores, the subtext was "please respect me." When they were lazy, my disappointment was not about the work not done. It was about their relationship with me. Still, we would fight and argue about the messy room (stuff and things), even though the real issue was our relationship. (And if you want more info on how I improved our relationship, read my post about Match, Mirror, Duplicate).
Have you ever fought with your kids about stuff? Maybe you fight about the clothes they wear or the stuffed animals they insist on dragging everywhere. I have. Rehashing the same argument about stuff is exhausting and frustrating. Our family life greatly improved when I focused on my relationship with my kids and the question why.
My boys never wanted to dress up. They wanted to wear workout shorts and sneakers everywhere. Sometimes I would insist that a special outing required different clothing. I finally made progress when I explained to my boys why. I explained that we need to show respect for their sister and the play she is in. I focused on their relationship with her. I explained why we wanted to dress up for her show. Dressing up showed her and others that we respect and love her. When they understood that, they were willing to wear less comfortable, more formal clothes (thank goodness!). It warmed my heart when one son eventually insisted, “I have to wear this shirt, mom, to show respect for my friends.” Whether on the improv stage or parenting at home, it’s not about the stuff and things. Focusing on the relationship makes shows (and life!) more interesting, fosters progress, and helps everyone be happy.
Sarah (front center) with her Arizona long-form improv team Hot Girl Summer shortly before the team's first improv festival.
Sarah (front center) with her Arizona long-form improv team Hot Girl Summer shortly before the team's first improv festival.

After having two babies 19 months apart, I felt overwhelmed as a mom. I looked for rules and phrases to give me sanity.

One phrase I started using was “If I can, I will say yes.” It was a wonderful way to approach parenting. In fact, this inspired a huge connection between parenting and improv. Let me explain.

The first rule of improv is to say, “Yes, and…”. Improv is more fun and easy when we say yes! It progresses the whole scene, strengthens team unity, and improves entertainment value. It is fun to perform in improv scenes where my teammates agree with my reality and support my ideas. It can be frustrating and annoying when improv partners deny my reality or reject my ideas onstage.

One of my favorite improv memories came from saying yes. I had an improv scene that called for a dog. I supported my teammates and became the dog. It was fun. Then someone suggested I was a rapping dog. Now, what if I had put on the brakes? What if I was embarrassed to act like a rapping dog onstage? What if I had denied their reality and no longer played the dog role? What if I had refused to rap? The audience would have been very disappointed and my scene partners would have felt betrayed or abandoned. I summoned all my hip hop moves and collected simple rhymes. I rapped my heart out. The audience loved it! My scene partners were satisfied and the scene progressed.

Little did I know the best was yet to come. My husband happened to be in that scene with me, and the next suggestion was romance. Were we going to say no? Absolutely not! We could agree to the reality of romance, despite the fact that I was still a dog. I crawled back onstage, ready to support whatever idea was presented. I expected my partners, the humans in the scene, to bring on the romance. I was thrilled when my husband said, “oh what a beautiful dog,” and gave me a big kiss on the lips! It was my favorite improv moment. I am glad he and I both said yes!

What works on the improv stage translates into real life. Just like saying yes to your scene partner improves morale onstage, saying yes to my children improves morale at home. I tried to remember the rule saying yes when the kids asked for things big and small.

“Mom, can I have a cookie?”

“Yes, when you eat your vegetables.”

“Mom, will you roll the playdough with me?”

“Yes, when your jobs are done.”

“Mom, can we go to Legoland?”

“Yes, when we have enough money.” And we did. Twice!

“Mom, can I do laundry?”

“Yes.” That is a no brainer.

“Mom, can I eat this medicine?”

“No.” I still had to set boundaries. That’s why I had the phrase, “if I can,” before the “say yes!”

So much progress, happiness and humor comes when we simply agree. It works when your 4 year old wants you to play with playdough, but also at other times in life. You still may have to set some boundaries, but if you can, say yes!

I found that this practice helped me and my children be much much happier. I got my kids to do what I wanted without hounding and complaining. They had a mom who was not saying no, no, no all the time. I was more positive and open-minded. I actually sat down and played with the playdough. There was a lot less fighting, a lot more progress, and many more smiles.

I confess: I used to be a bossy mom. I was constantly telling my kids what to do. I was frustrated that I said things and was ignored. It was even more aggravating when my husband asked the kids to do the same thing I had been asking, and they did it right away! This drove me crazy.

Finally, improv classes came to the rescue! First of all, improv taught me to really listen to the whole person. It gave me the skill of hyper listening. But once I had the skill of hyper listening, there was another step. I needed to acquire the next skill: match, mirror, and duplicate.

Sarah Johnson and David Raftery performing and improv comedy scene at The Bridge Improv Theater

In improv, you never know ahead of time what your scene partner is doing. You have to pay attention and act fast. One way we support each other and get on the same page is to copy each other. We match the facial expression and attitude of our scene partner. Then, we mirror what they are doing. We repeat the action they are taking and we keep doing it. It is a way for us (after we have hyper listened) to work on the same page together. We can portray a scene together. I have started many scenes with someone and had no idea what we were doing, where we were, or why, but it looked magical because I was doing the same thing as my scene partner. It is another way we nonverbally say, “yes, and..” to our partners.

I needed to match, mirror, and duplicate with my children. I was hyper listening to the body language of my children, but I was missing the next step. I was not meeting them where they were. I was trying to force my agenda, schedule, and demands on them. They were not listening to me, but I was not listening to them! I needed to really hyper listen, and then, match their mood, tone, and desires. I needed to approach them with connection, instead of commands. I learned to prepare them for things. I learned to say, "‘What are you doing right now? How’s it going? Can you be ready to stop and walk the dog in about 15 minutes?” Whereas previously I had simply said, “You need to walk the dog right now!” No wonder no one listened.

Once I became more aware of my children and connected with them, life got so much happier. We had interactions and conversations that were fun and edifying. We could work together with a positive attitude instead of stubborn force. Our relationship was not all about orders, commands, and work. It became about appreciation, connection, and love.

Obviously, I am still not perfect. Sometimes the kitchen is a mess, and I will not put up with it for one more minute! But other times, I wait until the kids are in the kitchen, ready to work, and ask them to put their things away. They often do it right away! It’s a lot more successful than screaming at a napping teenager, “Get up and do your work!” Life is so much better when we hyper listen and then match, mirror, and duplicate together. Even if you never practice this skill on an improv stage, try it in real life today!

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