Why Practicing 'Wrong' Makes you a Better Parent

Doug* says, “Chicken nuggets!”

“Yes, we ate chicken nuggets!” I agree.

“No no, wait! Pizza!” Doug corrects.

“We ate pizza!” I say enthusiastically.

“Oh, I meant chicken nuggets. Yah yah.”

His body folds backward as he talks, away from the imaginary stage we are on, away from the peers watching him.

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We’re playing a storytelling game in which I provide the baseline story and leave spaces for Doug to fill-in-the-blank. Anything we say is ‘right’.

But this moment catches him, as he struggles to find the ‘better’ answer. Doug was doing what all new improvisors do — edit as we go.

Similarly, I change my sign-off on my email from “Warmly” to “Best” and then back again.

Mindlessly, we construct better or more right responses throughout our day. Like how I constantly give feedback to the little people in my house:

“Your shoe is on the wrong foot, honey!”

“No, we don’t eat with our fingers.”

There are so many rules, skills and values to teach. So many realities to share. It is patently wrong to cross the street without looking. The sky is not red.

Clearly there are times when a clear right and wrong are essential. I need to be black-and-white about public nudity, poisonous plants and lying.

But black-and-white thinking and a right-wrong paradigm leave little room for mistake-making. For good enough.

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“Okay kiddos, we have time for one more book before we head upstairs,” my husband says to our three young children.

I groan aloud. No, I basically growl.

It’s past our normal time for going upstairs. I like sticking to our routine and of course, my way is the better way. How I like it. It’s better for the kids, too.

My growl erupts automatically — I unconsciously judge my husband, measuring against my standards. And unconsciously, I give feedback, wanting to shape his behavior.

Bird’s eye view: There isn’t a RIGHT/WRONG here, just a difference in approach.

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As parents we often hold ourselves up against measuring sticks which we use to slap ourselves — and our partners — in the butt.

When our kids do it wrong, we often reflexively judge them too. Particularly when it’s a wrong that we know they already know:

“Honey, I’ve told you this. Please put the toilet seat down after you use it!”

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“You know you have to finish your homework before you can watch a show.”

I’m not suggesting we give up on maintaining rules or compromise on our values.

But opening a window for mistakes and close-enoughs is important. And liberating.

I often feel in a state of constant judgment. It’s easy to get bogged down in the nagging. Do this, not that. But in this state I miss the opportunities for other kinds of meaning-making and connection.

Improv has offered a wonderful place for me to get things wrong, accept others’ ‘wrongs’ and find the beauty in mistakes. To let go.

And when we loosen our grip on right/wrong, we get to practice:

(1) Compartmentalizing the feelings of BEING WRONG

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As a recovering perfectionist, I am regularly confronting the discomfort of fallibility. I am a terrible sleeper, and my nighttime rumination often takes the form of reviewing my imperfect interactions. I go back and color them in with very helpful garnishes of shame or layers of disappointment.

For example, a few nights ago I was in an improv show at a fundraiser for a climate non-profit. I entered a scene to ‘solve’ the problem. Susie was breaking up with her styrofoam cup (embodied by a person), and I rescued the cup from the trash. In improv it’s ‘better’ if you stick with the initial dynamic between two people and support it. Often, solving a problem doesn’t lead to great comedy.

I wish I had made different a choice. But because the audience and my scene partners don’t dwell (or maybe even notice) my mistake, I can more easily move on. And later, if I beat myself up, I can compartmentalize the self-flagellation.

Because the show must go on. And improv, as a practice, is about acceptance, moving on to the next scene, the next rehearsal, the next show.

What if we viewed our parenting selves in this way. The show must go on. The next scene will take place. Instead of dwelling on our inconsistencies or imperfections, what if we note them and move on?

(2) Viewing Mistakes as Differences

I am not good at easily switching off my rule-following mode. Especially when I’m with my kids and just want things to get done. But you know what? My husband is getting the kids to bed — eventually — and gee whiz, that is just fine.

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And back to that scene at the fundraiser which I ‘screwed up’: Maybe that was the first time someone from the audience saw a person pretend to be a crumpled styrofoam cup, which then got un-crumpled and offered up for re-use. Hmm, that is a different way to think about styrofoam, climate change, or recycling.

As a parent, I need to remind myself that different approaches can lead to different, also positive outcomes. Sure, my husband’s version of bedtime might take longer. But hey, he’s connecting with the kids and being super patient with them.

(3) Find Beauty in Mistakes

Our 3-year-old twins opened up the board game “Qwirkle,” while I folded laundry nearby.

Since they can’t read and we’ve never discussed how to play the game, they made up their own rules. The tiles had names like Flora and Patters, and there was a family with complicated relationships I couldn’t follow.

I photographed the moment because I want to use it as a reminder of practicing wrong.

If I had been in helicopter mode, I might have corrected them or tried to teach them how the game is played.

But luckily I was folding laundry and observed their mutual creation of this unique, emergent game. I got to see them creating an imaginary world and see them practice turn-taking (It’s my turn now!) and compromise (How ‘bout this one is the big sister?).

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It’s easy to overlook these small moments. And to not see all the things that are going on here.

In playing the game ‘wrong’, a whole lot happened.

In improv we make room for mistakes — because unless you’re offending someone there are no mistakes. It is a forum for discovering unexpected beauty and grace.

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So here’s where I wrap up and implore you to make more mistakes when it doesn’t matter. Or at least notice when you are stuck in a right/wrong mindset.

When we open the window to more mistakes — yours and your loved ones — and doing things wrong (even purposely!), we stretch our brains and broaden the possibilities.

Need a little extra help practicing being wrong?

Use our Week of Wrong Calendar for some ideas!

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*Student’s name changed for privacy.