The Beauty of Yes-And: parenting lessons from improv comedy

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Photo by Abigail Miller on Unsplash

At just about any family dinner, there will be a moment where I look around the dining table and wonder–for the gazillionth time—how it is that all three of my children can be chewing with their mouths open at the same time. Again. The three of them, with half-chewed bits of spaghetti precariously balanced between their lips, gawping as they gabber. As if I didn’t just remind them to close their mouths a minute ago. And the minute before that.


It sends me into a mental parenting spiral: “What difference does it possibly make for me to try to work on their manners anyway? Obviously all this talking makes ZERO difference. Probably I make zero difference. I am wasting my time and my energy using my mouth for all this talk talk talking. I should just go and use it for something useful like chewing salted caramel chocolate pretzels instead.”

This is the conundrum of parenting: how often I feel like I repeat myself (and how often what I’m repeating is “no”, or “don’t!”) I honestly thought we’d outgrow this after the preschool years when the danger of knife-licking and road-crossing-without-looking was really real. But no. Real life is apparently meaner than that. Or I am a truly ineffective parent. I am definitely open to that being the feasible explanation.

So it came as something of a surprise to discover something new to try, from the tool kit of stand up comedians (of all places!) In listening to comedians like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey tell of their start in comedy, many describe their early days of learning to do improv — like the improvisation that made Whose Line Is It Anyway? so famous. The golden rule of improv? You always say YES, AND. Whatever madness your acting partner comes up with – whether they introduce a tattooed snowman with a fire juggling act or a traumatized jedi wearing stilettos — you don’t reject the premise … you roll with it and adapt. You keep it moving, and you can redirect as needed.

I don’t know what it was that made me think of improv in the middle of my children’s mid-mastication-misdemeanors… but something clicked and I remembered another Mom who had said she tried to make it her practice to try to find as many things to say YES to as she could. So, in response to “mom, can I wear this top made of two single strands of finely spun cotton?”, the answer would not be “NO YOU MAY NOT LEAVE THE HOUSE LIKE THAT, YOUNG LADY!”, but rather, “Yes, of course you can! As long as you wear an ankle length coat over it!” *insert sweet smile*

See? I didn’t say no.

So rewind to the dinner fiasco, where my head was full of “no, no, NO!” thoughts… and I decided to try the improv option. “Yes, I’d love to hear the rest of that story when you’re finished chewing,” I tried. “Good job chewing with your mouth closed,” I offered – as if to one kid in particular. In truth, zero kids had their mouths closed at the time, but they all thought I must be speaking to one of their siblings… and all three duly levelled up in their manners.

These kids are smart. They will be on to me in no time at all. I have no way of knowing whether this sneaky improv trick will be any more effective than the more traditional maternal means of dripping-tap-nagging. But here’s the thing. 59, 576, 320 reminders to my kids doesn’t seem to have made a big impact on them, but it makes ME feel crazy. The YES-AND option makes me feel less like a whiny stuck record.

It is possible my kids will one day leave home and turn out to be well mannered adults who chew with their mouths closed. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And miraculous?! The odds really don’t seem to be in our favor on this one, though, and at this time it does seem entirely more likely they may need to woo their future partners with dinner in the pitch darkness so as not to scare them off. But which ever outcome they go for, I am FOR them. YES.

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3 thoughts on “The Beauty of Yes-And: parenting lessons from improv comedy”

  1. I have been working on this too. Though, at least your kids are chewing, and not just sucking on your food. Never thought that would be a problem with as much as I love food.

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Bronwyn Lea

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