The essence of improv is saying yes, and. In a scene you affirm what is happening whether it's a scene partner talking to you in robot or calling you a schmuck. You go with it and add on to make the scene more real and rich for the audience.
In real life we aren't performing and don't have an audience for whom we need to create a consistent story. But a yes, and attitude offers some meaningful parenting (and life) lessons.
You can actually say yes more than you think. Try it. Try having the first word out of your mouth be yes. Are you now envisioning becoming a spineless push-over or having no boundaries? Not to worry! Let's unpack things a bit.
1. Listen. The first step to yes-anding is to listen. Identify the present reality. You need to know what you're saying yes to. That means listening closely. We all know the importance of being present with our children, and we also know how easy it is to multi-task. Sometimes the thing a child is asking for is THE thing - like, hey mom, I want ice cream - and sometimes a child presents to us a snargly, twisted ball of emotion, need and behavior. It can be difficult to know what THE thing is...and the only way to figure it out is to listen closely and be fully present.
2. Say yes. Once you've identified the thing (or your best interpretation), the next step is to say yes to that thing, no matter how unattractive, hairy or wild it is. Saying yes, at its core, is about accepting what is happening when it is happening. It doesn't mean you give out ice cream freely or approve of a difficult behavior. It means that you acknowledge and accept what is in front of you.
With the ice cream you might say, Yes, ice cream sounds yummy! Or in a more complex situation where a hard behavior seems like a cover for a difficult emotion, you say Wow! You just threw that crystal bowl across the room. I'm guessing you're feeling pretty icky to throw something that hard. And here's the really, really hard part - before jumping into discipline or correction mode, try to actually wait for a response or simply let there be a break in the action - space is okay! (Unless of course there's danger). In both the ice cream and bowl situation you are observing what is happening when it is happening. Your choice about how to respond comes next.
3. Say and. The final aspect of yes-anding is the and part. In improv you decide what you're going to add to the scene to move it forward. In parenting this is the part where you react or respond. Often we take ourselves so seriously during this part, thinking we must always instill a valuable lesson through lecture or consequences. But embrace the essence of improv and try trusting yourself. Try being playful. You'll find that you can both teach and be playful, be heard and be in-the-moment.
With ice cream you might say...and...I look forward to eating some soon - especially the minty-strawberry-pepper-sprinkled kind. In the bowl situation you might say...and...I sometimes feel like throwing things when I'm mad, too. What are some safe things we can throw instead?
Here's a real life example of when I used yes, and during a potentially heated moment:
I was picking up my son from preschool. My parent script said we were to grab his lunch box, put on his jacket, and head out. As we walked towards the exit, however, I learned that my son's script was from an action thriller, whereby he ran in the opposite direction, away from the beautiful-yet-harried mommy character. Agh! Opposing scripts.
So I could push for my script, and my agitated and firm voice would convey to him how serious I was and that I am in charge. He would about-face, smile, and say something like, You're right mommy, it is time to go. I love you so much. Thanks for watching out for me! And most of the time, I would probably try to do this - insist on my script-- because after all I'm the adult, I know what's best most of the time (or most educational, or most important). So my agenda should generally prevail. Right?
But I decided to go with my son's script. At the moment of yes there is a deep acceptance that feels incredibly liberating. And frankly, exciting. I don't have to enact the agitated mommy role yet again, which mostly just exhausts me. Okay, so he's chosen to run the other way. Now what? Well, I took off after him without any preconceived idea of what would happen next. Now we're really living on the edge! We got to the end of the hallway, where he turned with his devilishly expectant eyes: So, am I in trouble? What are you going to do next? Watching his body language it was clear that he knew it was time to go, so I didn't need to tell him that. And from previous experiences I trust that he knows that I'm The Decider. So I pulled out my gigantic tube of glue and applied it liberally to his body, with all sorts of juicy sounds. I narrated what I was doing, and between my addition to his story, the physical comedy of the glue, and picking him up to 'stick' him sideways across my stomach, we were both giggling and connecting, story and body. We then headed toward the exit, because after all, he was stuck to me.