Nina Meehan: Welcome to Creative Parenting with Nina Meehan. Hi, I’m Nina Meehan, CEO and founder of Bay Area Children’s Theatre and a mom of three. In this podcast, we’re gonna talk to folks with unique and exciting perspectives on parenting, from artists, fellow parenting experts, and everyone in between to give us their tips, tricks, tools, thoughts on how to best infuse imagination, creativity, and play into your family. So, let’s get ready to turn up the volume on imagination and fun with Creative Parenting.
NM: Today’s guest is Dr. Wendy Mogel. Dr. Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist and New York Times best-selling author. She serves on the Scientific Advisory Board of Parents Magazine. In her new podcast, Nurture vs Nurture, Dr. Mogel provides guidance to parents around the world, and her most recent book, Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say it, and When to Listen, offers guidance for communicating with children across the expanse of childhood and adolescence. I loved talking with Dr. Mogel, she is so phenomenal, and we covered a remarkably large numbers of topics, but in the end, we kept coming back to this idea that creativity and laughter and imagination and story is so vital to how kids are interacting with the world, interacting with you, finding their own independence, finding their voice, all of which I think is absolutely brilliant. I hope you enjoy Dr. Mogel as much as I do.
NM: Dr. Wendy Mogel, I am so excited to have you here. Thank you so much for coming and chatting with us today.
Dr. Wendy Mogel: Thank you, Nina.
NM: I’m gonna start really big. You have been with Spank your entire career working with families and kids, what do you see as the role of creativity, imagination, and play in family dynamics?
DM: Play and creativity have become an endangered species activity for families, it is so essential, it is at the core of the highest level of human interaction. And the wonderful thing about having children in your life is that they are spirit guides because they live in the world of imagination and play, and then you get to follow them and your inner child and their inner child can experience sensual, cognitive, spiritual, and emotional delight, and that is very vital in our doom-scrolling, low-fuel times.
NM: I need a T-shirt that says, “Creative play is an endangered species,” I think that is so brilliant, ’cause it’s so true, and I’ve seen that, and it’s so hard on families when we lose touch with that. So, from a purely, just a child development perspective, you touched on this, your children speak in play, they learn through play, what is the role of imagination and creativity in child development?
DM: Here’s an example that I use a lot with parents I work with. Children have very vivid dreams, they like to tell their parents their dreams, so I’m always wanting parents to read to kids and tell them stories, but if your child tells you their dream and you are a fellow traveler into their unconscious and you have a curious calm and captivated attitude towards their dreams, so you say things like, “It was a monster? What? Was it Peckidna? Was it Stripe? What did it look like? Tell me, was it as big as you, or as big as a house, or as big as the whole planet?” And you do an interview, so it is a dream interview with your child about what happened to them in the night, and this is where the wild things are, this is so much of children’s literature. When that child is back in their next bad dream, you are there with them, you are providing stewardship of their imagination in a way that can be calming or invigorating for when their thoughts start getting… When their imagination starts to grow in a way that feels like it might be moving out of control, they have the parent who travelled with them into the night kitchen.
NM: So, what I’m hearing is that parents can actually… If they come to that moment of dream and imagination with curiosity, that they can actually act as almost an anchor for that child so that the imagination can go where it needs, am I hearing that correctly?
DM: 100%, an anchor, a guide, and a fellow traveler. What parents do, and these are good-intentioned, loving, devoted parents who do this, but we’re also nervous, we want to fix things, and we kind of act like cheap public relations people. [laughter] And don’t worry, and it’ll be fine, and I’ll take care of it, and that doesn’t give children a sense of urgency and of being captain. So, if we go with the anchor analogy, that they are captains of a ship, and life is one big float, that’s what we’re doing, we’re going down the river, and if children can feel like they are guiding their ship with their parents at their side, but not captaining it, it gives them both a sense of security and adventure.
NM: Well, ’cause they can live simultaneously, I think that’s so beautiful. So, having created Children’s theatre my whole career, we do a lot of shows where we push that moment. So, we did Llama Llama live on stage, and we put Llama’s bad dream on stage, and that is a moment which for a lot of kids it feels a little bit scary, but it’s also exciting, it’s also exciting to know what’s gonna happen, and having kids giving them the opportunity to sit with their parent next to them in that anchor position to experience that and have both of those things live simultaneously, that it can be scary and a little exciting, I mean, to me, that’s so… It’s so… I’ve always seen that it’s a moment where children seem very alive, and that’s the moment that they’ll turn to their mom, or their dad, or their aunt, or their uncle, or whoever is sitting next to them and say, “Do you see? Do you see what’s happening?” And that goes right to what you were saying about that idea of interviewing your child about your dream, and I think that’s so phenomenal, ’cause it gives that open-ended question.
DM: So, this reminds me of research that was done at University College London on they hooked up audience members who were watching a production of Dream Girls.
NM: This is my favourite study ever. Keep going. Keep going. [laughter]
DM: Okay. So, they just attached them to sensors, and what they discovered is relatively shortly that their heartbeats were synchronised. And Émile Durkheim coined the term collective effervescence that as a species, we are designed to respond to each other’s vibrating mirror neurons, and as audience members in a theatre, we are experiencing both collective effervescence and a synchronised nervous system, and this is what we’ve been so deprived of during quarantine, to experience watching the musical, or certainly performing in a musical and becoming one.
NM: That is… When I first read that study, I’m talking goosebumps everywhere because it’s what we in the creative field always knew, but we didn’t have data to talk about it, we just kind of, “Well it’s the audience experience…” Which it doesn’t translate as well as their heartbeats were synchronised. [laughter]
DM: We are just starting now, and this is new, to study the neurobiology of laughter. And because people have always said, “Oh, laughter is the best medicine,” it actually is, that it reduces cortisol levels, it increases oxytocin, which is the tendon befriend and love hormone, it increases serotonin. So, serotonin is the happiness one, dopamine, the excitement one, oxytocin, the love hormone. So, neurochemicals and hormones that laughter isn’t as instinctive for homo sapiens as flapping their wings is for birds.
NM: I love that. [laughter] It’s so interesting to me. So, I’m obsessed with your podcast Nurture vs Nurture, I listen to it, it’s so good, it’s so good. And one of the things that I hear you talk a lot about is just kind of helping parents just relax a little bit, giving themselves a little bit of a break, and I’m thinking about laughter and how… In my family, I have three kids, I have a 5-year-old, a 10-year-old, and a 13-year-old, and there’s nothing better than the moment when we all laugh, it’s whatever it is, a fart joke, we love fart jokes, right? [chuckle] And whatever works. What are tools that parents can use to help chill out and let that laughter in or bring that story into their world that is gonna just bring down that pressure a little bit?
DM: There’s a term in linguistics called Familex. Familex are the private jokes, private language, nicknames, memories, and I always say to parents I work with that a bad vacation is better than a good vacation, because a bad vacation provides you with wonderful family lore and stories of how you survive, the awful food, or the awful people, or the terrible downpour, these are rich stories in memory, you have your cash to return to for the wonderful family and jokes. And many children that I’ve worked with over the years have told me that hearing their parents laugh together.
DM: Is something that gives them a wonderful feeling of security and joy. And to our parents who are listening that don’t have a partner to laugh with right now, ’cause they actually wanna kill that person or they already did, [chuckle] that any friendship among adults communicates to children that it’s worthwhile to grow up and become an adult, that it’s not simply a wearing oppressive slog through responsibilities, but there is joy, delight, silliness, and happiness in adulthood, and then this will motivate them to want to become parents themselves, and that will provide you with grandchildren, which is the best human relationship that exists, grandchildren and grandparents, because they have a common enemy, which is great, [laughter] and the common enemy is you.
NM: Me, oh yes, oh yes, absolutely. My mother is picking up my 5-year-old from summer camp in about an hour, and I…
DM: Perfect, that’s what I’m talking about.
NM: There you go.
DM: Yes, yes, yes, that’s so great, [laughter] that’s so great.
NM: That’s just so much fun what you’re talking about, and when you talked about that, that a horrible vacation, it really reminds me of a game that for many years when I was back in the day, when I was in the classroom teaching drama all the time, I would play a game called World Worst Vacation with my kids, with my students.
DM: Oh, that’s so great, yeah.
NM: It was so good. It was an improv game where kids would… We would tell a story using frozen picture, using Tableau, and we would call it World’s Worst Vacation, the kids would come up with all these horrible things, we would decide together, “Okay, if this is a vacation to the beach,” and they would come up with, “Oh yeah, well, on our way there, we had to… If we had to tie half the family to the roof ’cause the seats they exploded, and then we got to the beach and there were jelly fish everywhere, so we had to jump on top of the water,” and we would act out all of these moments of this World’s Worst, and I’m thinking about how families can actually use those kinds of tools in their own stories and actually even exaggerate and make it so much fun to take something that brings you together and that you can laugh about, I love that, that’s so much fun.
DM: And it’s a wonderful preparation for kids when they’re nervous about something, and you have to be… You have to choreograph this well, if you over-do it, you will implant a little trauma, [laughter] but we call it in cognitive behavioural therapy and treatment for OCD it’s exposure, we call it exposure therapy. So, you can role play with your child something they’re worried about, and if you have the right amount of silliness, tenderness, and respect for your child’s temperament, so you have to know your child, you can make it much worse than it actually will be, and then when they’re there, you are there with them, similar to in the dream where you’re there and they’re unconscious with them, you’ve role-played it and it’s not nearly as bad. So, you say to them, “Okay, what’s the worst that could happen?” And playfully create a scenario so that when they’re in the real experience, they’re thinking, “Oh, this is breeze.”
NM: I love how that can go back to exactly what you were just talking about with those open-ended questions in terms of asking about the dream, it’s the same thing. So, what are you thinking? I’m just spit-balling on how I would talk about this with my own kids, but what is the fear asking that question and then just figuring out how we can make it big and silly? ‘Cause in the end, that’s gonna be so powerful because it’s… Again, just as you were saying before, it’s putting them in that ship’s captain seat.
DM: Yes, and you are consulting, you are not managing, you are fascinated, and it’s so important for me for parents to be captivatable that what your child has to say, and this is not all the time, because then we become enslaved to our children’s imaginations or their concerns or their worries, and it’s kind of intrusive, and it’s kind of un-dignified, but to be enchanted with their enchantment, to be tender and compassionate and empathic, but not pitying or panicked about their concerns makes a lovely partnership between parents and children.
NM: So, I was speaking for this podcast with a Cirque Du Soleil clown recently, and he told me that, it’s so close to what you just said, I love it, he was saying that as a clown and a parent, he always strives to be interested instead of interesting.
DM: As a clown, so did he describe how in his clown persona with his little bell and his nose, that, and his shoes, how he performs interested with audience members, is that what he was saying?
NM: Exactly, listening, listening, listening, being open to hearing what’s happening and not… His exact example was, as a clown, I love this conversation, I love how it’s connecting to this one, as a clown, he is trained that when the baby cries in the audience, that is by definition more interesting than whatever he had planned as his act.
DM: 100%, 100%, yes. And then, did he say what he does?
NM: So, it’s listening to that and responding in that moment, just being there with the audience, just as we need to be there with our kids, but it requires that exactly what you were saying, we have to be open to being the folks who are enchanted, I think that was the word you used, which I love.
DM: And this is all improv, so this is life as improv, and we are so busy right now overthinking, “Now delta variant, and I’m vaccinated, but what does it mean? Should I cancel my trip that I’m leaving on tomorrow?” And this feed of data that’s so hard to sort through and it’s sensationalized and kind of worst first, and this, again, is the reason we are so privileged to be in the company of children.
DM: Because they don’t instinctively do that, they sadly learn to do that if they don’t have enough theatre opportunity in their lives. And I wanna just take this moment to tell you something about myself to make sure we get to it. When I was in high school, I got the best present I’ve ever been given. My mother bought me a puppet stage and puppets, beautiful German-made puppets. And I started a business. I lived in on the upper side of Manhattan, and I started a business with of performing puppet shows in children’s birthday parties for money. There were no entertainers at children’s birthday parties at that time, and I mentioned the upper side of Manhattan because those parents could afford to hire me to come and perform at the children’s birthday parties, and I did it every weekend, and it became the same sort of circle of parents, so I had to figure out a way to re-jigger the show to make it entertaining for basically the same audience. So, I would call the mom and say, “Tell me about your son’s best friend, his favourite TV show, the things he’s most excited about, the things that worry him,” and I would work that into the show and changing each time.
DM: And the reason I mentioned this is that it was theatre, I had to re-write the script. I hired my little sister to be my assistant, to help me carry the equipment. [laughter] I was paid $30 for each, which was a lot of money then. And I paid her $5. And we did it for months and months. And it’s an example of this part that my mother was completely not involved with this except for buying me the puppet theatre and the puppets for my birthday. So, it’s just to be independent, to be entrepreneurial, to have to keep up with the creative demand, because if I didn’t change that show, then I wouldn’t continue to be hired. And I’m actually, in adult life, doing it, I’m still putting on puppeteers, that’s what I do. I travel around the world doing public speaking, and it’s the same thing. I took a stand-up comedy class at Los Angeles Community College before I went on tour with the blessing of a B minus, my book about teenagers, because I decided that had to be stand-up comedy, talking about teenagers. This was Los Angeles Community College, I was by far not the funniest person in the class at all, ’cause this is LA, there were a lot of really talented people.
DM: But it was just to be able to be in a comedy class, [laughter] which was such a joy. And so, I want everybody to have improv, and theatre, and performance, and just those mirror neurons firing throughout the cycle of their lives.
NM: Yes, I’m gonna yes and that, to use an improv term, yes and. [chuckle] So, I’ve got
a two-question speed round for you. Here we go.
0:23:34.7 NM: The first question is, What is the first creative product, like a music, a book, a painting, a play, maybe it was your puppet shows, I don’t know, that you can remember as a child feeling inspired by or connected to?
DM: The most profound one was certainly the puppets and the puppet theatre, but I’m always asking parents about their children’s lovey and the relationship they have with that stuffed creature, also their pets. And this is something like theatre, because stroking a pet, talking to a pet, having imaginary conversations with pet, and it can be a stuffed pet or a live pet, but for so many children, it’s a wonderful antidote to the pressures that they live with in our highly-curated, speeded up, competitive world, and to have an opportunity to have a conversation with a silly-faced object or an animal is such both a relief and a release for children.
NM: We had two pandemic bunnies.
DM: Oh, bunnies?
NM: My boys created literally a PowerPoint presentation after lobbying me for three months that they wanted bunnies, and they have been the most beautiful, wonderful addition to our family, because they do, they talk to them, and they pet them, and the bunnies just kinda look at them, and be cute, and I think it’s beautiful. [chuckle] Alright. Question number two: What is the one word or phrase you say most often when talking to parents?
DM: One thing I do say to parents is, “Are you crazy?” And I can only say that to them when we already have a good relationship, so I don’t say that to them right off the bat. I also say to them a lot, “Is this still surprising you?” Which means that, for example, that person with which they… Or their teenager is a wonderful example. Parents are continually indignant, shocked, panicked, or angry, or anxious over totally, totally normal behaviour. So, the answer to your question is, and the thing I say to parents all the time is, “Well, I’ve heard that five times this week.
NM: Oh, yes.
DM: And it’s true, it’s always true. So, this week it was stick-and-poke tattoos acquired via Amazon while the kid was at summer camp being a junior counselor or a camper. [laughter] And my message to them is, “This is normal. We’re gonna figure out what the motivation was, and what you want, how do you want… How you want to respond to it, but so normal, you are not alone,” or this is normal child development. So, I have the Gesell books. Are you familiar, Nina, with the Gesell books, Your One-Year-Old, Your Two-Year-Old, Your Three-Year-Old?
NM: No, I don’t know the Gesell books.
DM: They’re from the Gesell Institute, that’s part of Yale University in Arnold Gesell, and they’re now being published as pamphlets, not as the original whole book, but you can still get the books. And the book Your Seven-Year-Old, the subtitle is Life in a Minor Key. Seven-year-olds are really gloomy preoccupied with death and kind of morose, and I just want parents to know totally normal for a 7-year-old. Let’s talk about death. Wow, what happens to your body when it’s decomposing? How fast does that happen? We can bring in science, we can bring in religion, if that fits in the family, or spirituality, we can bring in our imagination, dry bones, go there with them, follow them, and follow them, again, as I said earlier, calmly with curiosity, be enchanted, please have fun with your children.
NM: Thank you so much, Dr. Mogel, you are a gift, you are amazing. This was so delightful, and our parents are going to be so thrilled to hear your words, so thank you so much for your time, I really, really appreciate it.
DM: And Children’s theatre, we all need it, all the children need it, all the parents need it. It may be the most important institution on the planet, and I say that with full sincerity and with an entire childhood filled with participating in children’s theatre and then creating children’s theatre.
NM: And that is the other side of my T-shirt. Alright, we’re good, we’re good to go. [chuckle]
DM: Great, okay. Thank you, Nina.
NM: Thank you.
DM: Thank you for this opportunity.
NM: Dr. Mogel is brilliant and so amazing, and I enjoyed speaking with her so much, I hope you enjoy listening as much as I was having fun speaking with her. Oh, my gosh. Well, first of all, the puppet show, can you just picture that, like 16-years old with a puppet and puppet stage and puppets and getting your younger sister to drag along? And for the record, I was totally that younger sister to my sister when she did things like that as a teenager. So, for those of you who have teenagers, anytime you can encourage them and remember that they have the power to create a show, to get out of the guitar, to sing a song, whatever, and entertain young kids around them, such an amazing learning opportunity for them. There were so many things that Dr. Mogel talked about that I just feel were so powerful, up to and including this notion that laughter is literally the best medicine, that it actually is good for our biology and our health, and is so deeply connected to our nervous system. So, some thoughts to continue to explore all of the importance of giving kids space to be creative, a game I might recommend, so using that puppet show concept to start, kids of all ages can create their own plays in the backyard or in your living room.
NM: Some of you have kids who do this all day long and awesome, [chuckle] just remember your job is to be an enthusiastic observer and audience member, you don’t need to control, direct, produce anything, the kids will do it themselves, but for those of you whose kids aren’t doing that yet, encouraging them to put on a show, and it can be about anything, it can be about something they are passionate about, right? If they’re a basketball player, you can make a show about basketball, great, let’s do an infomercial where you teach me how to do basketball, and giving them the permission to just create a show about something they’re excited about. I also wanna just go deeper into the world’s worst game we talked about, so this you can totally play around your dining room table or in the car or whatever it is, and it can be world’s worst lots of different things, like it doesn’t have to be World’s Worse Vacation, it could be World’s Worst Restaurant, it could be World’s Worst School, World’s Worst Hiking Trip or Camping Trip, all of these things. So, the idea is that you go around and everybody gets to tell something that makes this the world’s worst camping trip, for instance, so maybe the tent falls in on itself and then it’s hailing, and then a dragon comes and refuses to light your camp fire.
NM: I don’t know, your kids will come up with brilliant stuff. And if you want, if you have a child who wants to do… Who is more likely to express themselves visually, have them draw it, what is the world’s worst camping trip look like on paper? Or if you have a child who isn’t necessarily ready to deal with the whole blank piece of paper, ’cause that can kind of be intimidating, print something out, print a picture of a tent and have them decorate the tent as the world’s worst, and then have them tell you about it, and you can sit in that world of reporter. I sure loved Dr. Mogel, I hope you did, too. Thanks so much.
NM: Thanks so much for listening. I’m Nina Meehan. For more information on Bay Area Children’s theatre, please visit our website www.bactheatre.org. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please tell your friends, post on social media, shout from the rooftops, give us a good review, and remember, today’s the day to turn up the volume on creativity in your home. Thanks.