I teach improv and my 15 year old daughter cannot make eye contact. For a Mom who considers eye contact one of the most critical steps to connecting with others, this scares me. You know what else scares me? She is petrified to express herself in school. She tells me that the very thought of raising her hand in class to ask a question sends her to a near panic attack. She will risk not turning in an assignment to keep from walking up to the front of the room to ask the teacher a question. When I ask her why it is such a big deal to ask a question or try to express herself in school, she says, “Mom, I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing and get laughed at.” Okay, typical teen insecurities, and we all had them. I would like to wager though that things have gotten worse for today’s youth. Today’s teens spend more time with their devices than actual people, it is no wonder they are timid to communicate with others. Younger kids need to learn how to follow their instincts, so that they don’t hold back when the time is right. When kids feel the rewards of following their instincts, the magic happens. When you become so used to being in control of the interaction, it is difficult to handle a real live person who can act and respond in unexpected ways. I think it’s safe to say that technology has put a wall up between today’s youth and interpersonal communication, self-expression, confidence and creativity. There is a whole slew of soft skills that our youth are missing out on.
I cannot have my daughter freezing up when life delivers those unexpected moments and she doesn’t know what to do or how to do it. I am on a mission to have her ready to act and react in social situations where a phone cannot save her. It certainly helps that teaching improvisation is my work, but trust me when I tell you that the apple did fall far, far from the tree in our case. She is reluctant and pretty much feels I have ruined any chances of her falling in love with improv (insert 15 years of improv jam sessions in our living room and me constantly debuting new characters for her to critique), yet I don’t need her to love it, I just need her to look people in the eyes, speak her thoughts without fear, understand that looking silly can be okay and to feel confident enough to have a meaningful conversation with a live person.
Here are 3 simple ways we can teach our kids to communicate better using improvisation:
Embracing Failure- Mistakes are going to happen. The sooner we learn to accept them and move on, the less time we waste worrying about what everyone else thinks. Improv teaches kids to enjoy a mistake and take full advantage of it. It forms the habitual thinking of mistakes are not bad, they are expected. When kids start to think of failure in this light, trying something for the first time or taking a risk and expressing an idea in a classroom full of peers, doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore. This is not to say that we teach kids to make a lot of mistakes in life, instead we are teaching them to not let fear of the mistake keep them from trying something. Here’s a great piece I read recently on the benefits of kids/teens embracing ideas and expressing themselves without fear.
Listening-I think as parents, we can all agree that we want our children to experience authentic interactions with others in life. As adults, we also know what it feels like to be in a conversation with someone who is or is not listening. Think about someone in your life who is a good listener. How do they make you feel? People who listen are respected. People who listen are liked. People who listen are loved. Improv teaches you to look someone in the eyes when they are speaking, and to take in their physical cues and expression. By practicing these things, our children will become good listeners and receive all the benefits for it in life. They will experience honest communications with others and most importantly see people eye to eye.
Finding the fun- The other day, my son’s pre-school class did a project themed after the master of silly himself, Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” The teacher asked each student, “Where do you want to go?” The answers were then placed on paper clouds and taped to the wall. Passing by, I noticed the typical responses of “I want to go to, the park, the zoo, my Grampa’s” and so on. There was one that caught my eye, and it read, “First I’m going to college, then to get married, but first I have to be the best Dad.” I was a little sad. I think four year-old Joseph is getting ahead of himself. The point of teaching kids to find the fun is to allow them to never abandon their sense of humor and to try and find the fun in everything that they do. They’ll be plenty of time for seriousness in life. Improvisation teaches us to find the silly and make it sillier. Ever watched an episode of “The Office”, the writers and actors are the masters of making the ridiculous more absurd. We’re not aiming for “absurd” in life necessarily, yet we do want our youth to have a sense of playfulness. It’s less stressful, makes people happier and teaches kids that even as adults, we can be silly sometimes.
My mission starts with enrolling my daughter in a summer improv program for teens and kids this summer. (Shameless plug alert) Most cities have improv classes and camps for youth. I would highly encourage any parent to consider improv as valuable training that our kids need today to overcome the social obstacles they must endure. Kristy West is the Founder of The Brink Improv will be hosting an improv comedy camp this summer in Avondale Estates, GA, for kids and teens at the DeKalb School of the Arts. For more info go here.