"Yes, and..." - Using Improv in Your Family

By Ian Jackson


Last weekend while taking my 8-year-old to one of his closest friend's for a playdate, I chatted with his friends' parents (who I'm glad to say are good friends of ours too) for a while. One of the things we talked about was improvisational comedy classes, which boil down to one simple phrase - "Yes, and...". The idea being that in improv comedy, each person taking part accepts the situation that has been created by the people before - adding to it, rather than negating it. (One reason improv companies are often used for corporate trainings is that the "Yes, and..." phrase is a great tool for brainstorming meetings.)

Then this morning on my way into work, "Yes, and..." came up again. I was listening to part of an episode of This American Life, the NPR magazine show. The story I heard, from the recent episode "Magic Words", was about two actors, Karen Stobbe and her husband Mondy. Karen's mother lives with them and has dementia. Much of the traditional therapy for dementia has focused on redirecting a person's thoughts to facts, and the truth about what's real around them, which often leads to upset and fights between the carer and the loved one. But Karen and Mondy tried using improv skills - when the mother stated she saw monkeys outside the window, Mondy replied "it's pretty early in the season for monkeys; I didn't even know they were here in North Carolina", and tried to concoct a plan with his mother-in-law to catch a monkey to bring it inside, because that would be quite an achievement. They talk about this as "getting in her world." In the show you could hear how much joy these kinds of conversations brought to his mother-in-law. You can listen to the story above, or directly on their website here.

"How to catch a monkey", from http://fertileforest.hubpages.com/hub/How-to-catch-a-monkey

So what does this have to do with a family learning adventure? Well, I'm keen to try it out more and see. My younger son loves it when I spend time sitting on the floor with him and playing with his wooden train set. And my older son craves time with me where all we do is build Lego creations together. But more than that, I know that when my sons start on some incredible flight of imagination and I start to list reasons why it's not possible, they quickly lose interest and feel shut down. But I've had fleeting moments (not as many as I'd like) where I've chosen to "get into their world" and imagine along with them. A kind of "Yes, and..." Then it's like a staring contest to see who will break first - if I leave to go do a 'grown-up' thing like make a meal, they usually stop too and that's that. But if I stay in the improv world with them, it all ends at some point anyway, and we usually all have a fun memory to look back on and talk about with others.

A friend recently posted on Facebook about how fun her husband is, and when pushed for stories, lots of people chimed in with their own stories about him, but one posted by my friend seemed like a kind of "Yes, and...":
So, once when the kids were behaving in such a way that could have injured either or both of them, [her husband] picked up his guitar and made up a song that goes like this: "The last thing I want to do is go to the hospital right now"...and the bridge is "my co-pay is $200 dollars" and he got the boys involved in that- the older one drumming, and the younger one back-up singing.
So does "Yes, and..." always involve joining in with what the kids are doing, even if it's dangerous? No, I don't think so. But it does involve getting in their world instead of shutting it down. And that's something that seems worth doing. Over time, I'd love to correct my kids less, and try to engage more in the "Yes, and...."

Is this something you've tried with your family members (either younger or older than you)? I'd love to know your experiences and get your take on this. And if you have things to add, that's easy - just start with "Yes, and..."

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