Four-year-old Sammy ran into the kitchen crying because his younger brother had just knocked down his fort. Immediately, Sam's mother pulled out a spoon and a measuring cup. "We must get to work and count these tears," she said. "Maybe we can set a record!" Then she began collecting Sammy's tears, emptying them carefully into the cup. Soon Sam was smiling. He'd forgotten what he was crying about.
In children's lives, forts will fall, knees will be scraped, hamsters will die, soccer championships will be lost, and bicycles will tip over. But lightness and humor can help ease the pain. By creating emotional distance from the upsetting event, humor can diffuse a conflict or relieve a tense moment. Humor can also ease the stress of parenting. When your child resists going to bed, refuses to get dressed, or screams in his car seat, humor and laughter can break the negative cycle. A little bit of laughter can serve as a bridge back to that deep bond between you and your child.
When I was a toddler, I would never sit still. It drove my mother crazy. One day when she was at her wit's end, she spotted a loaf of raisin bread on the counter and tossed it on the floor. "Phillip," she said, "I bought the wrong bread. Please, pick out all the raisins!" I picked out the raisins, and my mother had 15 minutes of peace. Decades later I became a teacher and learned that a sense of humor is a valuable tool. The same is true for parents at home.
Laughter Brings Health
The act of laughing triggers the release of our bodies' natural painkillers, endorphins. These chemicals help to block pain and create a general sense of well-being. Active amusement can also improve the immune system by raising levels of T- and B-cells, which produce disease-destroying antibodies. And because laughter increases oxygen intake, it can also stimulate the circulatory system and temporarily lower blood pressure.
By using humor you contribute to your family's health. You model for your children how to cope with stressful situations and expand their flexibility in dealing with the problems that come with life. Humor brings perspective and helps children learn not to take themselves too seriously. Parents who use humor create an atmosphere in which it is okay to make mistakes. They also establish a positive learning environment.
Laughing with others is also one of the best ways to build closeness. One of my favorite memories is of playing tug-of-war on the couch with my parents when I was a young child. I would sit in between my mom and dad. My mom would scream, "I got the leg!" and start "eating" it. My dad would pull me and shout, "I got the ears. They're the best part!"
How to Use Humor at Home
Try these tips to bring more laughter, joy, and fun into your family. If your child is giggling, laughing, howling, falling out of his chair, or begging you to do it again, you can be sure that you are on the right track.
- Laugh at yourself. If you drop a plate, crack a joke: "I didn't like that plate anyway." Refrain from getting angry if your child makes a mistake — or a mess. When he spills the milk on the kitchen table for the third time, make a joke about it: "Hope the table was thirsty."
- Play. It doesn't matter what the game is; the important thing is to play with your child. And be prepared to repeat what you do. Try the staring game. One person tries to keep a straight face while the other tries to get her to crack up.
- Ham it up. If playing tag, let your child catch you. When she does, scream, and try to escape. Repeat till worn out.
- Create a funny gallery. Cut out comics from the newspaper, funny photos out of magazines, or jokes. Put them on the refrigerator or on a bulletin board. Reference them when your child needs a laugh.
- Surprise him. Do something completely unexpected. Is morning wake-up a tense time? Walk into his room with a lampshade on your head.
- Join children in their world. For kids, mattresses are deserted islands surrounded by shark-infested waters or molten lava. Dining room tables are fortresses. Closets are caves. Follow their lead.
- Read joke books or funny poetry. Few kids can resist the hilarity of wordplay in books such as Shel Silverstein's Runny Babbit. Exchange jokes at dinnertime or when stuck in traffic.
- Learn a magic trick. Just one. The sillier the better.
- Tell funny stories from your own childhood. Your kids will love hearing them, and remember every one. They might even see you in a new light. Students I had 20 years ago still remember the raisin bread story.
- Watch a funny movie together. For some old-fashioned belly laughs, try Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or the Three Stooges.
- Give butterfly kisses. Or Eskimo kisses. Or make up your own silly kiss.
- Loosen up. Dance. Sing funny songs. Get up from the park bench and play on the jungle gym. Slide down the slide. Swing on the swings. Throw your dignity out the window.
- Use a funny voice. Instead of telling your child to feed the dog, sing it like an opera singer, or say it with an accent. Sing silly songs. Remember those goofy songs you learned at camp? Sing them.
- Arm wrestle. Try hard, but never win.
The American humorist James Thurber once said, "Humor is our most valuable resource. We must preserve it at all costs." As parents, we want our children to be happy and healthy, to be confident, to get along with others, to be at ease with themselves, and to cope with life's stressors. A sense of humor helps facilitate all of this. By using humor you will enjoy one another's company even more, strengthen family relationships, and lighten the atmosphere in your home. The best bonus of all: Your family will become healthier in the process.