5 Improv Pros Reveal Their Easy-to-Implement Parenting Tips

Last fall I began interviewing parent-improvisors from across the U.S. to learn more. I wanted to tap into the collective wisdom from improvisors who parent and parents who improvise. I had over 50 incredibly rich conversations, listened to challenging personal stories, soaked up thoughtful lessons, chatted with parents of babies and parents of adult children.

In each conversation the driving question was:

How has improv informed your parenting? 

Universally every improvisor-parent felt that learning, teaching and/or performing improv has made them a better parent. Each brought a unique lens to the shared journey of parenting. Their reflections may reinforce skills you're already using, or shed a fresh light on your particular stage of parenting.

Whether or not you pursue improv, these universal lessons in communication, empathy, emotions and playfulness will bolster your parenting tool kit.

1. Active Listening.

Nate Smith. Portland, OR. Curious Comedy Theater

  Nate Smith

Nate Smith

Veteran improvisor and teacher, Nate began improvising almost 20 years ago. His improvisation is beautifully woven into his daily parenting. We spoke about a wide range of improv skills that apply to parenting, and I appreciated his perspective on active listening.

Nate speaks of trying to be fully present and open to whatever his children bring to him in any given moment - at bedtime, meal time or during play. Our discussion about listening was made more poignant by his story of an interaction he had with his then 2-year-old. Nate asked, "What's tough about being a 2-year-old?" To which his son replied, "People not hear me."

  Non-active listening.

Non-active listening.

  Whole-body listening.

Whole-body listening.

Improvisors practice active listening by dropping their own agenda and listening to their scene partner with their whole body. Active listening is hearing words, yes, but also noticing body language. It is a quality of presence that is undistracted and whole.

2. Play Detective. 

Jaclyn Novatt. Naussau County, NY. Biochemistry Professor at Long Island University.

  Jaclyn Novatt

Jaclyn Novatt

Gifted researcher and educator Jaclyn has a background in theater and performed improv through graduate school. She uses drama to improve communication in science and is developing workshops for her students at LIU. 

Jaclyn finds her improv training essential to her parenting. With her 6-year-old son she spoke of playing detective, not jumping to conclusions or taking things for an obvious meaning. For example, when her son was talking about Red Sea at Passover, it turned out that he was actually picturing a red C. Of course! 

  Easy to assume what is going on here. But child's sad face may be due to the baby doll head falling off the  wrong way . Or any number of non-obvious things.

Easy to assume what is going on here. But child's sad face may be due to the baby doll head falling off the wrong way. Or any number of non-obvious things.

Improvisors play detective through active listening (see above), making A-to-C connections (e.g. not going for the obvious meaning) and staying open.

3. Let go of mistakes.

Patrick Short. Portland, OR. Owner and GM, ComedySportz Portland.

Veteran improvisor, teacher and leader in the improv community, Patrick has over 30 years of experience and a deep well of reflections on improv and life. He has co-written a highly regarded book on improv applied to business settings, Jill & Patrick's Small Book of Improv for Business.

As a parent, Patrick reflected on the importance of not letting fear dictate his parenting choices. So often fear is about making a bad or wrong choice. Instead, Patrick encourages embracing mistakes, naming them, and moving on. 

  Let go of mistakes, small and large, round or square.

Let go of mistakes, small and large, round or square.

Improvisors let go of mistakes in two ways: 1. The pressure of being in front of an audience often forces us to move on, because if you dwell on something the scene screeches to a halt and isn't much fun to do or watch. 2. Reframing mistakes. We try to accept and learn from all choices, pivot at any moment to accept a new reality. 

4. We are all storytellers.

Kat Koppett. Albany, NY. Founder at Koppett.

  Kat Koppett

Kat Koppett

Gifted leader and educator Kat Koppett is trained in both theater and organizational psychology. She founded her own company in 2006, Koppett, which uses improv and storytelling to build creative leaders and has served clients ranging from Apple to JPMorgan Chase. Her 2013 book, "Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership, and Learning", helped establish her as one of the foremost leaders in the applied improvisation community. 

Kat had many nuggets of wisdom, and it is obvious that she daily lives essential principles of improv. The lesson here is simple on its face, but as Kat dug into her explanation she helped me appreciate a nuance. So yes, first, we are all storytellers. We may not feel confident in our storytelling skills, but we all have the capacity to tap into the immersive and connective power of story.

Also, each of us is always making up stories in our head - expectations, judgment, observations - these too are stories. And, our stories do not line up with a single reality or truth that exists OUT THERE. We can pick and choose which stories we give attention to and gift ourselves, and others, with. 

  We are all storytellers. Put your stories out there! (And, you can decide which internal stories you want to hold on to.)

We are all storytellers. Put your stories out there! (And, you can decide which internal stories you want to hold on to.)

Improvisors practice storytelling skills by trusting their instincts, appreciating that we all have basic storytelling skills inside of us. They hone their skills by practicing narrative story elements like character arcs or rising action, and by noting story elements in other storytelling frameworks such as books, television shows, or movies.

Here is a very simple story structure you can use, adapted from Pixar. 

5. Be flexible. 

Doug Shaw. Cedar Falls, IA. Math Professor at University of Northern Iowa.  

  Doug Shaw

Doug Shaw

Doug has been improvising for over 20 years, directed a troupe in Cedar Falls for 12 years, and has created and led improv workshops for professors and business students. A member of the Applied Improvisation Network, in 2017 Doug delivered a compelling AINx (like TedX) talk about the dark side of yes, and

Doug's perspective on parenting is that improv is pervasive, and although he's been performing and teaching for decades he is always learning from fellow improvisors. He spoke of the importance of being flexible. I particularly appreciated his point about using the same games or creative approaches, but at different times (or life stages) and with different kids. In other words, just because a parenting choice doesn't work one time doesn't mean it's never going to work. 

  Be flexible.

Be flexible.

Improvisors practice flexibility by literally stretching their bodies (because our body is all we have on stage!), and by repeating skills over and over so we get comfortable with a wide range of realities and unrealities.  

Take it from the pros. You don't have to be an improvisor to strengthen these everyday practices - powerful additions to your parenting - and life.