How Tina Fey’s improv lessons apply to parenting

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Call me a little late (OK, more like six years late) to the party, but I recently picked up “Bossypants” by Tina Fey for my book club and chuckled my way through the entire memoir. Like Fey herself, the comedienne’s book is the perfect mix of hilarity and honesty, where you’ll laugh and then realize that what she just said is actually deep.

One of her best “Bossypants” advice sections isn’t about landing her writing gig on “Saturday Night Live,” launching “30 Rock” or playing Sarah Palin. It’s a sidebar that arose from her early acting days as a member of the Second City improv troupe in Chicago: “Tina Fey’s Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat*.”

Sure, I want to reduce belly fat. But what hooked me was how her breakdown of improvisational comedy can apply to life in general. And specifically as a mom, I see how her handy dandy tips can apply to making the most of time with my kids. 

Fey has two daughters, and it’s probably a safe bet that she uses the positivity of improv in her everyday parenting life. Here’s the breakdown of her four improv rules as applied to parenting:

1. “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE.”

“Start with a YES and see where that takes you,” writes Fey. “As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no.”

As a natural pessimist, I see this as a challenge from Fey to put more positivity into life and into my perspective as a parent. I caught myself on this one recently. My toddler son was sliding our closet doors open and closed saying, “Elevator!” My first, logic-focused response was, “No, we don’t have an elevator.”

Hello! The kid was using his imagination, pretending the closet was an elevator, and I couldn’t see it. So I flipped a mental switch. And then we were playing elevator, accompanied by my son’s giggled comments of  “Oh no, what happened my body!” as he closed the doors.

As Fey writes, “the Rule of Agreement reminds you to ‘respect what your partner has created’ and to at least start from an open-minded place.” So if my son has created a fake food feast of mustard and butter for us to “eat” together in his playroom, I’m eating mustard and butter. If he wants to go outside and I’m fairly exhausted, I’ll try and heave ho so he can make circles around our house in his cozy coupe. Because usually once, I get moving, I don’t regret it.

tina fey photo
Getty Images | Handout

2. “The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND.”

“To me, YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute,” Fey writes in “Bossypants.”

This is an easy one to apply to your kids’ play, because kids are the best improvisers out there. Is your kid making up an off-the-wall story about how apples turn into aliens when we’re all asleep? Yes, and now you can pretend along with them, adding on to the story.

“Whatever the problem, be a part of the solution,” Fey writes. Parental empathy plays well here. Your child is upset over something and you try to understand it, empathize and redirect it.

Or do you need to get your kids to listen, reschedule or renegotiate? Try out, “Yes, that sounds like fun, and we can spend time doing it (state your future date).” 

I should do this one with my toddler more often. When he asks me to “make pancakes” at 6:30 a.m. on a weekday and we have to be out the door in 15 minutes, instead of saying, “We don’t have time,” I can say, “That sounds like a good idea. We can do that this weekend.” 

jimmy fallon fey photo
Getty Images | Theo Wargo

3. “The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS.”

My husband and I apply this already to the “Love and Logic” approach of parenting in offering our son choices we know we can live with. For example: Brush your teeth before or after you get into your pajamas. It’s your choice, but they’re both still getting done.

And when your kid is an expert questioner—”Why can’t we get fro yo today?” “Is magic real?” “Why do I have to go to bed now?” “Could sauropods swim?”—reclaim your ground with the power of the statement. “Because it’s 30 degrees out.” “Ask your dad.” “So you have enough energy for tomorrow when we have fun plans.” “Let me google that.”

Show them who’s boss.

Another part of the third rule of improv, Fey writes, is to “Make statements, with your actions and your voice.”

Sounds like another technique you might know as “the kid stare down.” “Do I see you, dear child, getting ready to chuck that sippy cup from the table? No, you will not be getting said sippy cup back if you do so, nuh uh.” Calm voice, steely gaze, following through with the consequence.

TINA FEY photo
Flickr | George Arriola

4. “THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities.”

This is my favorite of Fey’s improv rules because it reminds me that there’s no perfection in parenthood. I’m going to be questioning my parenting decisions every day. But chances are it’ll add up to a kid who’s just fine.

So come Saturday morning, when I’ve made sub-par pancakes, that’s OK. My toddler probably doesn’t care. He’s just excited I’m making them with him.

So thanks, Tina Fey, for reminding us parents that “there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.” And we’re all just winging it on our way.

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Getty Images | Theo Wargo