Playing and Parenting

by Amy Averett

In a couple of weeks, my son Walter and I are starting our improv class together through Merlin Works.  I am so excited to take this next step and wanted to share a few thoughts about it.


As parents we spend so much time guiding (or preaching or lecturing or correcting) our kids.  Being a good improviser requires you to let go of what you think is the “right” way to do things. You have to shut up that voice in your head and make your next move before you’ve had time to think it through.  You have to give up control of the situation and of other people and just trust that it will work out.  And if it doesn’t, SO WHAT?  When your crappy improv scene is over, you never have to do that crappy improv scene ever again.  You dust yourself off and move on and try again.  Your child will see that the ground doesn’t swallow you up when things don’t go exactly the way you thought it should.


As parents, we often struggle to be present and “in the moment” with our kids.  Yes, I get down on the floor and play LEGOS, but I’m usually thinking about a call I need to return or what I’m going to pull out of the fridge for dinner.  Improv requires and cultivates being present and in the moment.  You’re naturally drawn to focus on what’s right in front of you and to shut other things out.  Our lives are filled with distractions and technology and improv offers a chance to spend time together smack dab in the present moment.


At different developmental stages, kids and parents get locked in power struggles.  These struggles are often portrayed as the most “difficult” times – the Terrible Two’s , the horrors of adolescence, etc.  Doing improv together is an opportunity for kids and parents to go all Freaky Friday and trade power and status for a while.  Your kid may play a tough Army General while you bumble around as a hapless Private who keeps losing his helmet.  Your kid will be thrilled to boss you around the stage.


As our kids move into adolescence, they are also trying on new ways of being in the world and new personas.  Improv gives a space to bring out many different characters and ideas, and to test these out in a safe, supportive environment.  You’ll likely get new insight into how your child sees the world by seeing how they play characters of different ages, and genders, and with ridiculous New York accents.   Walter and I have had great conversations about shows and characters we’ve seen – why did that guy do that?  What makes someone a hero?  Why did they cuss so much? (Yeah, he’s seen a lot of shows with cussing.  They’re improvising.  Sue me.)


Even though it scares the crap out of us parents, risk taking is a natural and healthy part of adolescent development.  Risk taking is also a core tenet of improv.  If you’re not failing, you’re not taking enough risks.  Walter has a stutter that can be pretty bad sometimes.  It’s common for people who stutter to withdraw and avoid conversations or public speaking where they might get “stuck” and embarrassed.  Walter never went down that road, and I think learning and watching improv is a huge part of that.  It is a community that supports risk taking.  You try out a choice and it falls flat?  Ten other people start doing the same thing and it becomes hilarious.  You flail around on stage looking ridiculous? We give you a standing ovation at the end.  Take the risk.


As parents, we are often in the role of the experts.  Our young teens are starting to notice that we’re not perfect and we don’t have all the answers.  And they love to point it out.   Improvising together creates a great opportunity to fail in front of our kids, to take feedback and notes from the coach or instructor and to grow and stretch our brains.   My son came out to see my do a triathlon once.  He was very disappointed that I didn’t win the race and found it very hard to understand that my race goal was to 1) not die during the swim and 2) to not be the last person across the finish line.  It’s great for our kids to see us try something that, at a minimum, takes us out of our comfort zone and might even require us to face big fears we hold.


I randomly started improv classes at the suggestion of a friend.  At the time I was newly divorced, figuring out how to run a household on my own, and working as an Executive Director of a nonprofit organization.  I loved my life, but I had to be in charge and on my game all the time.  Walking into improv class was a revelation.  I didn’t have to prepare anything.  I didn’t have to run anything.  I walked out with no assignments for next time.  It was a chance to just show up and play and laugh and it was unlike anything else in my life.   Best extracurricular activity ever.   I repeat:  THERE IS NOTHING TO CLEAN UP AFTER AN IMPROV CLASS.

I know that taking classes with Walter is going to be fun and challenging.  I’m going to feel the urge to correct him if he interrupts, give him feedback on what he can do better, etc.  Hell, I’m a mom.  I’m going to do my best to shut out those messages and treat him like every other scene partner I’ve had.  I can’t wait to create silly stories and laugh really hard with my awesome kid.

P.S. Am I worried that improv class will be the next step to us becoming that weird mother and son in ABOUT A BOY?  That he’ll eventually do a painful rendition of Killing Me Softly at a school assembly just to make me happy?  Hell yes, I am.


Amy Averett has been a part of the Austin improv community for six years as a student and performer.  She performs with Girls Girls Girls Improvised Musicals and Array.  Her son Walter is eleven years old and has taken improv classes and camps through Zach Scott Theater, the Hideout Theatre, and Creative Action.   Amy is quite possibly the most embarrassing mom ever, but fortunately Walter is too busy singing Weird Al Yankovic songs to notice.


About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.

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