Make 'em Laugh
Humor is one of a number of things — like art or dramatic play — that children can create. Humor, in turn, fosters a relaxed and playful climate in which further creativity is more likely to occur. Humor, creativity, playfulness, and play are closely connected, so a home or classroom that's conducive to any of them is likely to have an abundance of all of them and be filled with the laughter of happy children.
Even in the most supportive families and classrooms, there are constant pressures for children to conform to the expectations of others. But in pretend play, and when they are fooling around, children can buck the system.
11 Ways to Encourage Humor
- Maintain a warm, supportive atmosphere in your home. A child who feels that not only his humor, but his very self is likely to be ridiculed isn't likely to have the confidence to risk silliness.
- Be playful with your child. Physical comedy is particularly popular with young children (lap games, odd timing, peculiar body language, gestures, facial expressions). As children begin experimenting with and mastering language, verbal play is always a smash hit. Encourage imagination and pretend play, curiosity, ideas, and originality.
- Build your child's self-esteem in all aspects of her life — physical and social accomplishments, competence, and knowledge. A constricted, inhibited child with low self-esteem is rarely very good at creating or appreciating humor.
- Help your youngster become aware of the needs, wishes, and pleasures of other children. To amuse peers, a child has to understand their perspective and mood somewhat and be able to move in tune with his audience. When we help a child learn to solve problems with siblings and friends by listening, explaining, negotiating, and acting on the solution they've agreed to, we're working on the foundation essential for a sense of humor, as well as for so much else.
- Use humor yourself in everyday life. Show the way by introducing a bit of nonsense in tense situations between children. In addition to teaching children problem-solving skills, guide them in relating to peers with a twinkle when it feels as if a light touch would reduce the level of anger, aggression, or anxiety in the air.
- Share stories that tickle her funny bones. Try stories with illustrations, incidents, and entanglements that are incongruous with the way your child knows things really are.
- Allow your child a little leeway with "bathroom humor." It may be better to overlook the pee-pee and poo-poo jokes and to show a glimmer of humor at our children's wittiness than to be altogether opposed to their exhibition of high spirits and camaraderie.
- Throw in a pinch of laughter when a child's compliance is needed but lacking. This can increase the likelihood that the adult's objective will be met, everyone will come out unscathed, and the child will have more respect for the adult's ability to be a fun person. For instance: "The bath toys are still in the tub? The tub alarm's going off! Bleep! Bleep! Oh, put the toys away, stop this horrible racket! Hurry! Oh, thank goodness, you stopped that awful alarm! Tomorrow, try to remember to get the bath toys out before you get out."
- Let your child feel superior and laugh at you. Turn the tables now and then. Make goofy mistakes to give your child a chuckle. This can add balance to the incontrovertible fact that you are, and you should be, the boss. On the other hand, don't let the big kids scoff at the little kids. Older children are so relieved to know that they've grown that they tend to ridicule younger ones (children who represent what they were very recently).
- Make a joke out of making a mistake. One of the most useful tools in the mental health toolbox, and for achieving social success, is the ability to laugh good-naturedly at oneself. It's hard not to like a cheerful child and one who makes you laugh, so peers are less likely to "mean tease" a child who teases about his own oddities and errors.
- Provide your child with the structure she needs to be able to predict what you expect. Reasonable household policies (call them rules if you prefer) and a schedule (albeit flexible) help children "act right." Being able to manage one's behavior is part of being able to use humor judiciously. A child who inflicts her rowdiness on a sibling or friend without sensitivity to his wishes is not a skilled humorist.
What's Not Funny
Children are put off by adult humor because it's over their heads. It's too sophisticated, perhaps including puns on words they don't know, or maybe involving experiences they've never had. When grownups make jokes that children don't understand, children feel stupid. Preschoolers don't understand sarcasm, and joking with them should never include it.
Young children's humor reflects their recent mastery of physical skills, knowledge of how things normally look and are done, language skills, and emotional issues. As soon as a child feels competent that she can do something or that she completely understands something, she shows off by doing it differently from the way it's customarily done. Because the pleasure of humor is largely the feeling of mastery, a child won't make the joke or even get the joke unless she's been there, done that. For instance, until a child knows what farm and zoo animals look like, pictures in which the wrong heads are on the bodies just won't strike her as funny.
The ability to appreciate humor enriches a child's life in all dimensions. By using humor, children feel free to deviate from the rules. Laughter is an expression of freedom from the way things really are, and we can all occasionally use a little escape from the way things really are!