The Sweet Side Effects of Being a Playful Parent

Since embracing improv in my home life I've noticed a few sweet side effects in my relationship with my son. So if you can't make it to one our classes or workshops here are a few footnotes.

Son, do as I do, not as I say. 

Son, do as I do, not as I say. 

1. My son pays better attention. Because he isn't sure when I'm next going to speak in gibberish or make a goofy face or do a wacky dance...he pays attention. Most of the time. He turns to look at me when I'm speaking because, hey, I might do something silly and he doesn't want to miss out. Keep in mind preschool humor usually involves physical comedy, so I'm really not tooting my own horn here and claiming I should be on SNL. It comes down to having fun together, to connecting on the terms he best understands - through playfulness, play and imagination.

Not using my serious voice with my nieces.

Not using my serious voice with my nieces.

2. My serious voice means something. Because I am not taking myself seriously all of the time, and I'm selecting the moments to use my SERIOUS voice, it carries weight. When mommy speaks firmly or - in my moments of being triggered/tired/not-up-to-par, angrily - my son looks. He knows I mean what I say. I don't yell very often and I try to avoid black-and-white consequences around issues that aren't essential to survival (hurry-the-heck-up because I'm just feeling impatient versus I'm yelling now because you're running into the street). When I make a strong statement it is heard and usually taken seriously. 

Trying to get baby Zara to make faces with us. 

Trying to get baby Zara to make faces with us. 

3. We are creating a family culture. Over time I find that the stories and characters we create together (spontaneously at first), return to play prominent roles in our lives. We are creating an interesting world unto itself. Our family has inside jokes - which we're happy to share with others, of course! - but being on the inside of it means we share ongoing stories and are lucky to come back to them whenever we want. I find this very liberating - it's truly both an authentic, joyful experience and a tool. The repetition of a character or story line means we get to know it well and continually revise and update it to our needs and imaginative whims. For example, I've written here about how Clifford has helped us get out of sticky whining situations. He has now become a multi-lingual friend who helps translate whining as well as many other confusing situations. It's fun to have him pop up and help us out from time to time. Recently my son was caught up in a tired/hungry freak-out in the car (I didn't have a snack with me, or maybe I had the wrong one). After acknowledging his feelings on the matter and stating the facts (this is our snack option), my hand became Clifford and pretty soon we had moved on to more constructive interactions.

Let me note here: I am not advocating playfulness as a way to distract from true emotional expression. I believe wholeheartedly in validating emotional expression and sitting with an emotion as an important part of being human. That's step 1. Acknowledging what is happening when it's happening (the yes, of improv) and giving enough space for it to happen. Step 2 is reading when playfulness can be offered a way to connect (and show you're paying attention) and modeled as a tool for navigating the incredible task of being human.

So, keep at it! Even if playfulness or spontaneity doesn't come naturally or feels forced initially, my sports background has taught me that PRACTICE is the key. Even in my relatively short time taking improv classes, I've seen myself grow more comfortable with being on a stage and speaking extemporaneously. It's often the fear of not being good at something that gets in our way. When parenting choices are coming from a place of love (and self-compassion), we won't fail.

Keren Gudeman

Minneapolis, Minnesota