Parenting from the Improv Perspective

Tiny but Mighty Nuggets of Wisdom from the Improv Theater World

The Power of Mental States Verbs!

First words and expanding vocabulary are such important aspects of childhood development. No matter whether your child is preverbal or chatting up a storm, it’s never too early or too late to consider the types of words we as parents use to support our children’s language acquisition. One group of words that parents can use with intention are mental state verbs.

Few categories of words offer as much long-term bang for their buck as this group of verbs. Mental states reflect the thoughts and feelings of a speaker and, later in development, the concept of Theory of Mind, which is the ability to understand that someone *else* has their own thoughts and feelings. This is critical for social emotional learning, as it helps convey wants, desires, feelings, and responses to events and internal discomfort or pleasure. What’s also amazing is how children’s ability to communicate their own desires is consistent across cultures and languages (though many more studies of non-English speaking children is definitely required), even when adult use of verbs about thinking is relatively sparse.

Mental states are also important for story comprehension, understanding why a character has responded to an event in a particular way. This has benefits down the road in academic contexts, as children eventually have to infer the thoughts and feelings of characters from texts. Mental states are also linked to the development of executive function, as their use reflects the understanding of intentionality, planning, and prediction of events that are remote in time and space.

All of this may sound very technical and complicated, but actually for parents it is quite easy to start highlighting these words in our own conversations with our children and emphasizing them during activities we are already doing, like story time and meals.

Some ways to incorporate mental states at home or out in the world are to:

  • Use gestures to point to your head, cradle your chin, or indicate you aren’t sure, when talking about thoughts you are having or your child might be having.
  • Exaggerate expressions that match the type of mental state you are emphasizing. Are you wondering about where you put your keys? Say it aloud and add a super quizzical face.
  • Embed questions you might ask within a statement that includes a mental state, such as the absolutely golden word wonder. “I wonder where your shoes are.” Or “I wonder what color this ball is.” This phrasing not only takes some of the demands of having to answer a question off the table, it can also create opportunities for our children to show us what they know during activities instead of parents becoming the “drill sergeants” who are quizzing our children.
  • Use wordless picture books to tell stories and describe the characters’ expressions, intentions, plans, and reactions. A few of my favorites are ChalkPancakes for BreakfastCarl’s Birthday (or any of the Good Dog, Carl books), or Frog, Where Are You?

I have created this chart to help jump start your mental state sprinkles at home. You might find you are already saying all of these phrases and more!

This article and graphic first appeared on the San Mateo Parents Club blog

My first tip of 2022 to share comes from the 2 under 2 file! 
Have a little one who needs floor time and a bigger one that makes that hard? Find a way to teach safety by having parallel tummy time. Get the toddler on their tummy for a story as the little one watches along. When the older toddler reaches for the baby, shape the action into one appropriate for the interaction, like “Oh I see you want to reach out and help! Let’s turn the page together!”  If your older one is very into baby heads (like my Bridget), you can place a baby doll (or stuffed animal) next to the baby, and say “When you want to hug your baby sister, show me how you’ll do it with your baby first” Translated into toddler “Show me on baby first. First baby doll, then baby.” Then model the baby doll hug. 

Hopefully this will keep you and all your little ones enjoying each other’s company and soft spots stay safe! 

Taking Risks: Parenting Style

Have you ever felt judged for how you parent? 🙋‍♀️. Sometimes other parents have questioned my decisions and even my own children. This is a picture of my son, living his best life on the playground when he was 1 year old. He liked to go head first down the slide at the park, and I let him. I noticed he could support himself in a plank position at the bottom and could get himself up easily on his own. 

Then one day another mom told my son not to go down that way. I told her I thought it was ok since he was smiling and independent. The mother then looked at her mother and said, “We need to move because I don’t want this kid to be a bad example.” I was humiliated. Flames coursed through my veins. Luckily my own mother was there as well, and she helped me simmer down and remind me that what another mom thought didn’t really matter. 

That episode always remained in the back of my mind. Not only because of the judgment, but also because my kid was exploring the world in his own way that worked for him, and I wanted to support that so much. 

Today I am proud to promote body awareness, functional independence, and PLAY in one amazing package, and I would love to provide a judgment free space for parents and kids to safely practice together!

We will weave in loads of social-emotional learning and developmentally appropriate communication and cognitive tools so you’ll come away with a deeper understanding of how independence is cultivated through play. You’ll find out how to simplify and be more at ease communicating with your kiddo (instead of overthinking and overdoing)!

For more information on my Outdoor Play Workshop, click here!

Here are two videos discussing Wordless Picture Books and their value for being improvisational and intentional!

How to use Wordless Picture Books & How to be Improvisational within a well-illustrated framework!

This week’s tiny but mighty tidbit from the improv world: Be Silly!

Sometimes in improv when a scene is floundering or you have no idea what to do next, we are encouraged to make a silly noise or say something ridiculous. This is both an act of humility by communicating a struggle without being negative and also an opportunity to laugh in the face of struggle, a concept that builds resilience and empathy.

So when we as parents are faced with a struggle, it is often a good mantra to try to harness the Power of Silly! Transitions from play to tasks and dinner time tend to be when things get fraught with tension in our home (maybe it’s getting out the door in yours or diaper changes… anything that is stressful for one or both parties is totally at play here). So our strategy has been to make these moments especially silly! At dinner lately, our son struggles with being an efficient eater, so we’ve started making Zoom Zoom noises and playing the Dinner Race game where each bite is a lap around the Formula 1 track. We wave our arms like flags and yell “Woohoo! Lap 45 complete!”

There are lots of ways of making things silly during transitions: getting from point A to point B in different ways (walking like animals, making funny noises, singing songs), pretending to be on a roller coaster or plane while being carried, adding belly kisses to diaper changes, or pretending to be clueless while our kids are getting dressed (“How on earth do I put this sock on? On my ear?”)

I challenge you this week to Be Silly the next time a moment becomes tense and see if we can break the tension or stalemate with a laugh!

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This week’s parenting tip from the Improv World: “I fail!” Now Take a Bow!

I’ve seen a lot of amazing content this week about how to make it right when we as parents lose our cool and tips for how to teach our kids to make it right when they lose their cool. But there are lots of times when we as parents feel like we’ve failed that don’t necessarily require a big apology. 

Sometimes it’s just accepting that whatever we’re doing right now isn’t working, and it’s time to pivot… whether it’s an activity we set up for our kids that they have ZERO engagement in or inviting our kid to cook with us and now there is batter everywhere and a broken whisk from banging, and it just feels like a disaster (while our kid happily licks chocolate off all the things). All perfectly fine outcomes that just feel disappointing or frustrating to us. 

In the improv world this is basically what happens when a scene derails. And the solution is a glorious acceptance and reset. You say with dramatic flourish, “I fail!” then you take a bow! It’s a humbling and hilarious way of accepting that not everything goes smoothly, that even improvised moments can be awkward moments, and everyone is equally aware that failure is totally ok. The dramatic bow is a signal that we are starting over, and the joy of acknowledging that failure reminds us that it is normal and not something we need to carry around with us into the next scene. 

I challenge you this week to recognize your own frustration in a moment, accept the seeming failure and reset the moment with a dramatic flourish of forgiveness!

This week’s tiny but mighty tidbit from the improv world: The Parent Show

Once there was an improviser who was visiting from another country with his troupe. The locals all thought this improviser was excellent, but his colleagues disagreed. 

“At home he’s a bad improviser because he only knows a few words of English. At home he gets up on stage and makes stupid jokes all the time.”*

When I think about how improv helps me as a parent, I always go back to how “Less is More” for the individuals on stage so that the group can find a groove and build together. This story illustrates the Power of Parents Pulling Back and letting our little one share our stage by

  • Being inventive (using our everyday objects in unexpected ways)
  • Staying positive when things don’t go as WE intended (i.e. our kid is not digging the Parent-Directed Show and letting that communication stand as a note to us and not a criticism of our effort).
  • Being physical. we can interact with a child in their space and let their body take the lead (what are THEY touching/reaching for or trying to explore?) and letting our body follow theirs instead of guiding their body the direction we want it to go. 
  • Talking less. Yes, I know we all do our best to Narrate All Day, but sometimes the power comes from our silence, and like those improvisers experienced, muting ourselves gives our littles a chance to shine.

I challenge you to find an opportunity this week to use your floor as an improv stage and mindfully and intentionally allow your child to be a partner in play using one of the above strategies! Or register for an upcoming Infant and/or Toddler Learn With Less® class and practice these methods all month! 

*Keith Johnstone, considered the master of improv, has a blog that highlights anecdotes from his decades of teaching and directing. This tidbit is from a story called BAD IMPROVISER

This week’s parenting tip from the Improv World: “Yes, and…” 

In theater they say you should always accept a partner’s bid. Saying “no” in a scene shuts it down… it goes nowhere. How can we use this philosophy in parenting?

In all relationships, we can accept and decline bids from our partners. With our children, we can use this philosophy when we have an opportunity to correct a faulty assumption they’ve made or when they make a factually incorrect statement. For example, attempting to identify a color.

Often it goes like this:

Child: “Yellow!”

Caregiver: “No, that’s blue.”

It’s not that this is wrong… but it’s also very halting. 

We could use the “Yes, and… ” philosophy to validate the part that was correct while ALSO modeling the information our child still needs as they LEARN their colors.

Let’s try it:

Child: “Yellow!”

Caregiver: “Yes, I see a color too, AND I see blue! <points to object> Blue!”

I challenge you to find one opportunity this week to use the “Yes, and… ” model to positively validate a communication attempt and keep the learning going by using AND to model the target!

Published by Rachel Kammeyer, MA, CCC-SLP

An SLP with a passion for evidence-based fun!

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