We think of humor as a positive way to interact with children, and it can certainly be an effective teaching tool. Any good children’s book, toy, TV show, or movie usually contains an element of humor, such as mistaken identity, playing a trick, an absurd accident, or getting the best of a grown-up. However, much of what we adults think of as humor is far too complex and sophisticated for a young child to process positively. If you watch cartoons with children, for example, you will learn that what we find humorous, does not entertain or even elicit a reaction from a young child.
The dictionary defines humor as “a comic quality causing amusement,” but humor comes in many varieties, some of which can be harmful to young children. What may seem clever or witty to an adult may actually cause embarrassment or shame to a child. Sarcasm, teasing, mimicking, wisecracking, scoffing, ridiculing, and mocking can result in discouragement, confusion, and low self-esteem.
Children respond to humor that is simple and direct. And they love it when a joke is on the adults in their lives. The next time you spill the juice, lose your keys, break a dish, or burn the toast, turn it into a joke on yourself and show your child that it’s O.K. to make mistakes and that you can laugh at yourself, which is an excellent way to counteract perfectionism. Children (who are still learning about language) also laugh at “word plays”. When a child asks, “Will you put on my shoes?” respond with, “They won’t fit me.” Kids think this is hilarious and it encourages them to focus on what words really mean. Young children also laugh at tricks that are played on them, such as peek-a-boo and hide and seek.
When children are in a group and laugh at each other, it is usually because one child is doing or saying something “bad” or “wrong”. Words that are frowned upon by grown-ups almost always bring laughter. Sometimes the laughter is a bit apprehensive because children feel some anxiety in laughing at what is forbidden, but they’ll join in as long as everyone else is laughing. In a group, kids will also laugh if someone trips and falls, by accident or on purpose. Again it might be anxious laughter or an outlet to release a sense of relief that something has happened to someone else. If another child has an accident or is hurt and crying, a parent or teacher should interject with a comment such as, “I’ll bet you’re glad that wasn’t you. How can we help our friend feel better?”
Humor that is positive and enriching comes from a sense of gratitude and joy. Much of this feeling toward life comes from a person’s inborn temperament. Even a child whose inborn temperament is less than positive can learn joy and gratitude from role models. As with so many things, gratitude and joy begin with the adults in a child’s life. Are you a joyful person? Are you grateful for your family, work, and community? Do you talk to your children about your values, hopes, and aspirations?
Gratitude is an attitude that can be passed on to your child. Point out the small wonders that surround your child and express that you are thankful for them. Stop to look for worms under a rock, birds nesting in a tree, icicles dripping from frozen branches, a beautiful sunset, or clouds skimming across the sky. Sing and dance with your child, make up stories, be spontaneous and silly. Greet your neighbors and show your child that the world is a friendly place. Trust that life is good. All of these things will contribute to your child’s joy, and to the sense of humor that will give her strength for every day of her life. Humor based on joy is a gift, and it is one you can easily give to your child.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.