I'm a Mom and a Theater Teacher: Here's How the Rules of Improv Can Help Your Parenting

The rules of improvisational theatre can also be rules to live by as a parent. Here are four to incorporate into your daily lives.

An illustration of a mom in a theater.
Photo: Illustration: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

Like any good theatre kid, I went to drama camp and I learned the rules of improvisation. When I grew up, I became a theatre teacher and started passing along these little rules to my students as not only rules to use on stage, but also in life.

Now I have kids of my own—a 4- and 7-year-old—and started incorporating the rules of improv into my parenting arsenal—and they've really helped make a difference.

Rule #1: Yes.

Maybe you're rolling your eyes, thinking I'm going to tell you to have a "Yes Day" a la Jennifer Garner. I'm not. The first rule of improv is to say yes. On stage that means when your scene partner says, "Look over there! It's a giant tyrannosaurus!" you don't say, "No it's not. Dinosaurs are extinct." You do say, "Look at those giant teeth!"

In parenting, it looks a little different. How I use the rule of "Yes" in my parenting is that I try, whenever possible, to say yes. I'm not a particularly permissive parent. I'm (usually) not letting my kids run amok. But, when presented with a request, it's easy to get stuck in the "No" mentality of parenthood. "No, you can't stay up late." What if, instead it was, "Yes, let's read one more book and enjoy our time together and then you head to bed."

It doesn't always work. There are hard and fast nos we need to stick to. I try, whenever possible, to keep my nos in the realm of health and safety. "No, you cannot eat only candy for dinner." "No, you cannot punch your brother." But, even then, can it be a yes? "Candy tastes better after a healthy meal." "Your brother likes when you use kind hands." My nos are more powerful if they're sparse.

Rule #2: Yes, and...

The second rule of improv builds on the first. Instead of merely saying "Yes," you need to add on by saying, "Yes, and…" In the example about the dinosaur, instead of agreeing there is a tyrannosaurus, you can say, "Yes, and it's coming right at us! Run!" This builds on the previous actor's statement and continues the action.

For parenting, I make this a game with my kids. I tell them today is going to be a day where, whenever possible, we are going to say, "Yes, and..." I practice with them using silly examples. I say, "Can you make a funny face?" and they are challenged to say something like, "Yes, and we'll do a funny dance with it." This keeps their creative bug going and their young minds working.

I try to pepper in the fun ones throughout the day but add in some things that need doing. "Will you put away your clothes?" I'll ask and they can say something like, "Yes, and I'll put my hamper back after." I'm not asking for anything out of the ordinary, but I do expect them to be saying, "Yes and..." Since it's a game, I can usually get more yeses than if I demanded compliance.

Rule #3: Make your partner look good.

I was taught the third rule of improv is to make your partner look good which means that you need to share the spotlight, let your scene partner do what they do best, and be there to save them if they stumble, literally, or in the flow of a scene.

In parenting, making your partner look good can apply to siblings, peers, or the other parent. For siblings and peers, it has to do with giving kids a chance to succeed. As parenting expert Ross Greene says, "Kids do well when they can."

For example, when a kid tattles to me, saying, "He hit me!" I ask, deadpan, "Did you speak to him about it?" Usually, they have not. So, I tell them, "You need to tell him that you didn't like being hit and then you need to walk away." With little kids, you may need to model this. The goal is to give the "victim" a chance to stand up for themselves in a productive way and the "attacker" a chance to do the right thing. No one's in trouble and everyone "looks good."

With a co-parent, whether you're married or not, making your partner look good can be a challenge, but worth it for your kids. Give them the benefit of the doubt; they love your kids and want the best for them. Give them opportunities to succeed. Try not to belittle or bemoan another parent in front of your kids. Arguments in front of kids are likely to happen at one point or another, and that's OK, but experts say to do so with respect and make sure to also make up or resolve conflicts in front of your kids.

Rule #4: There are no mistakes, only opportunities.

I have been taught a couple "final rules" of improv over the years, but I like the version of the last rule that Tina Fey uses in her book, Bossypants, "There are no mistakes, only opportunities."

As parents we beat ourselves up so much. Our birth didn't go as planned. We didn't nurse long enough. We didn't feed our kids organic food. We let them watch too much TV. We got frustrated and yelled. If we try to give ourselves a little grace and see that, even when we do something "wrong" like yelling at a kid, it's also an opportunity. Instead of hating yourself, talk to your kid about how you're feeling. "I don't like that I yelled at you just now. I was angry, but I am sorry that I scared you."

Then use the opportunity to let your kid teach you what they know. Ask, "What should I do next time I feel frustrated?" Your kid might tell you to take a deep breath, count to four, take a break, or use your calm, big kid voice. Giving your child the opportunity to help you succeed will make them (and you) feel empowered.

The Bottom Line

Since all the world's a stage, using some drama in my parenting came naturally to me. I'm a far from perfect parent. The rules of improvisation are not the fix-it for all parenting issues, but if it brings a sense of play, collaboration, and opportunity into my life, I'm willing to step onstage and try.

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