Raising Children with a Sense of Humour

The benefits to encouraging our children to laugh their heads off and some tips on just how to do this
By Child Magazine

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Get my sister, aunts and cousins together in a room and it only takes a mildly funny situation or joke to get us crying. Our belly-rolling laughter is the perfect tribute to my late grandmother, Nana, who had the silliest sense of humour and kept us all in stitches at every family gathering. Most of the time we weren’t quite sure what we were laughing at, but once the laughter and tears had eased it only took a simple sideways glance or twitch of the mouth to trigger the next bout, each one more infectious and intense than the last. Even now, without Nana around, it always ends the same way: one of us cries out with a diaphragm pain and breathlessly pleads with the others to stop. You may think we’re crazy, but if you’ve never laughed until you thought you would die, you are missing out.
The Best Medicine
Doctors agree that laughter is medicinal: by triggering the release of endorphins (the body’s natural feel-good chemicals), laughter can reduce pain and stress, thereby enhancing our immune systems and potentially adding years to our lives, all at no cost. Michele Perkins, a Durban-based counselling psychologist, believes a well-developed sense of humour is especially important for children as it can be used as an effective coping skill in difficult or stressful situations and can improve self-esteem.
“Laughter can be useful to foster positive interpersonal relationships and has been identified as a protective factor in youth, helping to ‘stress-proof’ children,” she says. Johannesburg-based educational psychologist Jolene Knowles agrees. “A sense of humour is important for children as it enables them to see the funny side of things and cope with their difficulties. Children who are able to laugh at themselves and see things from different perspectives tend to have a higher self-esteem.”
Experts agree that although children have an inherent sense of humour and clearly love to laugh, the ability to see and appreciate the humorous side of life is a quality that can be developed and nurtured and parents have a role to play when it comes to modelling a healthy sense of humour for their children and encouraging fun and laughter where appropriate. Essentially the best thing a parent can do to encourage a healthy sense of humour in their children is to have one themselves. Knowles comments, “Children learn through imitation and example. A parent who is able to see the funny side of things fosters the development of their child’s sense of humour. Parenting with humour creates joy.”
No Laughing Matter
Knowles and Perkins caution against modelling unhealthy humour such as sarcasm and racial jokes, and encourage parents to have humour boundaries. “It is important for parents to laugh with their children in appropriate ways,” says Knowles. “Laughing at others is inappropriate.” Perkins adds, “Emphasise to your children that a joke is when everyone is laughing together. When only one or two people are laughing, it may be at the expense of another. Racial slurs and teasing are a form of bullying and sarcasm can be a misuse of humour.”
Humour at Every Age
0–2 years
Babies begin smiling in response to outside stimuli somewhere between six and eight weeks of age, with their first giggle following soon afterwards, usually between the second and fourth month. A baby’s humour centres largely on her parent’s actions so she will take the biggest delight in the things that they do such as bouncing or tickling her, pulling funny faces or making silly sounds.
Between six and 12 months, she will be laughing regularly at pretend behaviour such as dad acting like a monkey or mom sucking her dummy and will find repetition hilarious such as continually dropping her toy out of the pram for you to pick up.
Between 12 and 24 months, as your toddler’s communication and physical skills improve, he will delight in being chased and in exaggerated language such as waving your hand under your nose and saying “Phew-eee” when you change his nappy as well as general silliness such as putting a facecloth on your head. Be aware that there is a fine line between humour and fear at this age so introduce new games carefully – loud sounds and funny faces can scare as often as they delight.
laughter buttons:
  • Play traditional games such as Peekaboo, This little piggy and Round and round the garden.
  • Blow raspberries/zerberts on your baby’s tummy when changing her.
  • Have a tickle marathon with your toddler or imitate Jim Carrey’s “the Claw” (from the movie Liar Liar).
  • Walk on your knees and pretend to catch him and watch him squeal as he tries to out run (or waddle) you.
  • Read books with noises and flaps.
2–5 years
As your toddler grows and goes to school, he will begin to enjoy more slapstick social humour and will take the sillies to new levels with increased vocabulary and intellect. Games such as tickling and catching still delight as he is physically stronger and able to anticipate the “moment” but he will find humour in general nonsensical behaviour, enjoying anything goofy, silly or absurd. By now you may find him chuckling to himself as he watches a silly TV show.
Toddlers enjoy simple word games such as rhyming and alliteration. This age also sees the emergence of toilet humour, a normal part of childhood development, so you may find a phrase like “stinky winky” repeated daily between toddler siblings (Tip: just ignore this – it will soon get stale). Nonsensical words and stories stretch the growing imagination. Toddlers love to laugh at themselves and may find the simple act of accidentally slipping off their chair hilarious. These accidents are often purposefully repeated for further effect. With a better grip on language, toddlers will enjoy intentionally misusing language such as calling a hotdog a “hotfrog”.
laughter buttons:
  • Read rhyming stories, such as One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish or Mr Brown Can Moo, Can You? by Dr Seuss, out loud to your children. Make sure to show the funny pictures to them.
  • Throw out the rule book and jump on the bed together. This is sure to delight your toddler.
  • Who can tell the silliest or most nonsensical story? In our family, we have “The ongoing adventures of the old lady who lived in a vinegar bottle” and we each get to describe her next adventure. She once met and married a magical breakdancing monkey.
  • Have an “Opposite Day” where everyone in the family wears their clothes inside out and back to front, you eat your dessert before your main course and say the exact opposite of what you mean, such as “Goodbye” when you mean “Hello”.
5–7 years
Younger children will enjoy simple riddles such as “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and Knock Knock jokes as their language skills develop even further and they start to understand sequences and patterns, although at first they may not understand or catch the jokes they are telling. Physical humour such as acting out a silly scene or doing a crazy dance is common at this age. Children will use humour to win friends but this is the age to watch for sarcasm and teasing. Playing tricks on adults is another favourite.
laughter buttons:
  • Teach them tongue twisters such as “She sells seashells on the seashore” or “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Where’s the peck...”.
  • Start a tradition: buy a Knock, Knock book or Google some age-appropriate jokes and include them in your daily routine, perhaps just before dinner.
  • Encourage your children to tell you jokes and laugh at their jokes even if they don’t come out right. Your reaction is more important to them than making sense.
  • Play charades.
  • Have a staring contest where the first one to laugh loses. Even adults can’t keep a straight face for long.
8–12 years
As children mature it becomes more difficult to make them laugh easily as they are not as “silly” as toddlers and younger children. Eight-year-olds will enjoy complex riddles and jokes as their more expanded vocabularies allow them to understand double play on words.
Ten-year-olds will start to appreciate real-life humour and will listen eagerly to anecdotes about your day. They will start to appreciate real-life comedy shows on television such as America’s Funniest Home Videos or Whose Line Is It Anyway?
laughter buttons:
  • Share your most embarrassing moment (if it’s age appropriate). This will encourage them to see the humorous side of a humiliating real-life situation and will show them that you can laugh at yourself.
  • Watch funny TV shows and DVDs together to stay in touch with what your child finds funny. Ask your local video store to recommend some that are age appropriate.
  • Visit the local library and ask them to recommend the five funniest books for your child’s age group.
13+ years
Friendships and sexuality are big themes in the teenage years and humour can be a useful tool in winning and maintaining friendships, attracting friends of the opposite sex or as a defence mechanism to avoid social embarrassment. It is also used to explore sexuality in an indirect way. Intellectual or witty humour is more appreciated at this age and teenagers are capable of sitting through and appreciating a comedy skit at the local theatre. Teenagers are prone to sarcasm so make sure to set boundaries around this; playful sarcasm is okay but when it is hurtful it is inappropriate.
laughter buttons:
  • Attend a stand-up comedy evening or comedy show at your local theatre. Do your research, though, as lots of comedians use bad language and extremely sexual humour in their routines.
  • In a social situation, if you hear laughter, move towards it. This simple exercise will encourage your children to seek out humour.
  • Laugh with your teenager as often as possible. You may feel worlds apart from your teenager but as Danish entertainer Victor Borge said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”


Bheki Zulu wrote 7 years 15 weeks ago

I thank you very much for what I have learned from you. Keep it up.

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