Have you ever done something funny — put a sweater on backward, stepped in a wad of gum, spelled “happy” wrong on a birthday cake — then laughed about it?
Good for you. Hope the kids were watching. For every time you laugh at some silly challenge, channel Goofy to get a giggle out of a little one or laugh at a fixable oops, you’re modeling the value of humor. Beyond the big belly laugh, humor can help ease life’s tiny bumps and serve as a teaching moment for children.
“A parent who can be silly or enjoy doing things that are kind of fun and exaggerated, I think gives children some really good coping skills,” says Doris Bergen, a professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
“Life is going to have things that are not going to go the way you want them to, and it helps if you have an ability to see the funny side of things.”
That may mean reframing a situation, perhaps making that extra “p” in “Happpy Birthday” into a frosting flower. “Exaggerate the trouble a little,” Bergen says. “By just making light of it that way, it doesn’t seem as dire.”
Start early. “Very young children begin to see things that they think are funny at a very early age,” says Bergen, who has done extensive research into humor and play. “Even in the first year of life, there are some things that are just kind of nonsense or funny things that happen.
“Toddlers are very tuned in to what might be funny,” she adds. “They make up lots of little jokes. If you want to encourage your children to have humor, you need to be responsive to that, and kind of join in the fun.”
The goal is kids who not only appreciate jokes, but who know how to take and make a joke themselves. “Some children perhaps naturally are more likely to see the humor in things,” she says. “But I think it is also something parents encourage or don’t encourage in children.”
However, once children get past 8 or 9 years old, silly may not always work, particularly if the intent is to tease. Parents must be mindful of whether the intended humor might be hurtful, she says.
“The key is that (all parties should be) enjoying it.
“You have to help them learn to ‘take a joke’ … to learn to tease back, or you need to be able to take it and change it,” Bergen says. Or not pay attention to it, she adds, or say something back that conveys that it didn’t really bother you.
Educational psychologist Doris Bergen offers these tips on helping very young children develop a sense of humor:
Look for humor in books you read to kids: “(Help) them to understand the humor and why it’s funny.”
Use peekaboo and surprises carefully: Kids interpret them as funny in comfortable, warm situations, but scary when they’re somewhere that’s unfamiliar.