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How Improvising Fatherhood Made Me A Better Dad

A very important part of improv is listening. I was reminded of this a while ago when my second child was only two years old. He was being fussy while I was changing his diaper. I asked him, “Is it hard being a little kid sometimes?” He said, “Yeah.” I asked, “What’s hard about being a little kid?” What he said stopped me in my tracks.
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The theme of “imperfect parenting” is a natural fit for my Improvising Fatherhood style of parenting. As an improviser, I bring the rules of improv into every aspect of my life and especially into my parenting. Improv is all about embracing your mistakes and using them to keep moving forward. In improv, as in life, you're making everything up as you go and can't expect to be perfect. All you can do is keep moving forward with a "Yes And" attitude.

A very important part of improv is listening. I was reminded of this a while ago when my second child was only two years old. He was being fussy while I was changing his diaper. I asked him, “Is it hard being a little kid sometimes?” He said, “Yeah.” I asked, “What’s hard about being a little kid?” What he said stopped me in my tracks.

“People not hear me.”

Here was this two-year-old who was telling me that all he really wanted was to be listened to. To this day those words still echo in my head. Ever since that moment, I have always made a major effort to make sure both of my kids felt heard. And not just my kids. My wife. My family. My co-workers. We all just want people to listen to us. Those four words, from the mouth of my two-year-old son, have made me a better person.

I had another moment where my son, this time my older son, reminded me of the importance of listening. As parents, we always have an agenda with our kids. Especially during bedtime. At our house the bedtime routine is a surgically precise itinerary filled with teeth brushing, potty going, and book reading.

There was a time when I felt myself having trouble with our 5-year-old who has the focus of a … 5-year-old. Imagine that. The main source of my frustration had simply been about me having an agenda and him not complying with that agenda. He’s not being disobedient. He’s just … you know … all over the place.

But one night as we got to his room for the book reading portion of our bedtime routine, I decided to drop my agenda. Usually this part of the routine goes something like this:

“Chandler, why don’t you pick a book for us to read.”
(Chandler does something with his Legos)
“Chandler please pick a book to read.”
“Dad who do you think would win? Hulk or the Thing?”
“I already told you, Hulk is basically unbeatable. Please pick a boo--”
“What if Batman helped the Thing?”
“I’ll pick a book. How about this one?”
(Chandler plays more with his Legos)

And so on and so forth. But this night, I decided to call on my improv training and I “entered the scene” with no agenda. I started the “scene” by asking him what book he would like to read because that’s the “premise” of the scene. But when he responded with a question about the Peter Pan show he saw earlier that day, I abandoned my agenda and just listened to him. I focused on only him and made sure to respond directly to what he was saying. I played the conversation like an improv scene, supporting and heightening his ideas.

What ensued was a really nice conversation filled with lots of giggles. And eventually he said, “OK, let’s read a book.” He then picked a book and we read it. It’s as if because I took the time to focus on him, he became more focused on what I wanted. When children feel listened to, they start listening back.

We can’t always drop our agenda to follow the crazy whims of our children. But the more opportunities you can find to let your kids take the lead, the more willing they will be to follow. Just like improv, parenting is messy, but it's also full of joy, wonder and mistakes that lead to unexpected gifts.

nate and kids

Parenting is full of both joyous and messy moments. There's no perfect way to parent, which is why we've teamed up with Clorox to celebrate all of life's little messes. Do you have a personal story about your kids that impacted your approach to parenting or helped you stop stressing the little things? Let us know your perfectly imperfect parenting tale at dontstressthemess@huffingtonpost.com.