A sense of humor can brighten family life. You can blow raspberries on a baby's belly, put on a silly hat and chase a 3-year-old, or pretend to fall into a pile of leaves to amuse a first-grader. As kids grow into preteens and teens, you can share puns and jokes as their sense of what's funny grows more sophisticated.
Laughing together is a way to connect, and a good sense of humor also can make kids smarter, healthier, and better able to cope with challenges.
We tend to think of humor as part of our genetic makeup, like blue eyes or big feet. But a sense of humor actually is a learned quality that can be developed in kids, not something they're born with.
What's So Funny Anyway?
Humor is what makes something funny; a sense of humor is the ability to recognize it. Someone with a well-developed sense of humor has the ability to recognize what's funny in others and can amuse them as well.
A good sense of humor is a tool that kids can rely on throughout life to help them:
see things from many perspectives other than the most obvious
grasp unconventional ideas or ways of thinking
see beyond the surface of things
enjoy and participate in the playful aspects of life
not take themselves too seriously
Kids with a well-developed sense of humor are happier and more optimistic, have higher self-esteem, and can handle differences (their own and others') well. Kids who can appreciate and share humor are better liked by their peers and more able to handle the adversities of childhood — from moving to a new town, to teasing, to torment by playground bullies.
And a good sense of humor doesn't just help kids emotionally or socially. Research has shown that people who laugh more are healthier — they're less likely to be depressed and may even have an increased resistance to illness or physical problems. They experience less stress; have lower heart rates, pulses, and blood pressure; and have better digestion. Laughter may even help humans better endure pain, and studies have shown that it improves our immune function.
But most of all, a sense of humor is what makes life fun. Few pleasures rival yukking it up with your kids.
Kids can start developing a sense of humor at a very young age. But what's funny to a toddler won't be funny to a teen. To help your kids at each stage of development, it's important to know what's likely to amuse them.
Babies don't really understand humor, but they do know when you're smiling and happy. When you make funny noises or faces and then laugh or smile, your baby is likely to sense your joy and imitate you. He or she is also highly responsive to physical stimuli, like tickling or raspberries.
Sometime between 9 and 15 months, babies know enough about the world to understand that when mom puts a diaper on her head or quacks like a duck, she's doing something unexpected — and that it's funny.
Toddlers appreciate physical humor, especially the kind with an element of surprise (like peek-a-boo or an unexpected tickle). As kids develop language skills, they'll find rhymes and nonsense words funny — and this will continue well into the preschool years.
And it's around this time that many kids start trying to make their parents laugh. Your child might deliberately point to the wrong facial feature when asked "Where's your nose?" or put on your shoes and clomp around the house.
A preschooler is more likely to find humor in a picture with something out of whack (a car with square wheels, a pig wearing sunglasses) than a joke or pun. Incongruity between pictures and sounds (a horse that says moo) is also funny for this age group. And as they become more aware of bodily functions and of what gets a parent's goat, preschoolers often start delighting in bathroom humor.
As kids move into kindergarten and beyond, basic wordplay, exaggeration, and slapstick will all be increasingly funny. They may discover the pleasure of telling simple jokes (it's fun to be the one who knows the punchline!) and will repeat the same jokes over and over.
Older grade-schoolers have a better grasp of what words mean and are able to play with them — they like puns, riddles, and other forms of wordplay. They'll also start making fun of any deviation from what they perceive as "normal" forms of behavior or dress, and gross-out jokes related to bodily functions are a hit too.
But kids this age are also developing more subtle understandings of humor, including the ability to use wit or sarcasm and to handle adverse situations using humor.
It's never too early to start developing a child's sense of humor. Babies' smiles and laughs are so delightful that we often do this intuitively — smiling, blowing raspberries, or tickling them many times a day just to hear a chuckle.
It's important to keep up this encouragement as kids grow. When you're playful and humorous with your child, delighting in silliness and laughter, you help him or her develop a playful and humorous attitude about life.
One of the best ways to do this from the toddler years on is to spend time every day being receptive to the many opportunities your child gives you to smile or laugh. Be spontaneous, playful, and aware of what your child finds funny at different ages. Also be game enough to laugh so the jokes don't fall flat.
What else can you do to encourage your child's sense of humor?
Be a humor model. One of the best things you can do to develop your child's sense of humor is to use your own. Make jokes. Tell funny stories. Laugh out loud. Deal lightly with small catastrophes like spilt milk.
Take kids' humor seriously. Encourage your child's attempts at humor, whether it's reading (potentially unfunny) jokes from a book or drawing "funny" pictures of the family dog. Praise your child for trying to be funny and be open to surprise — the first time your child makes you laugh is one of life's great pleasures.
Teach kids that adults are funny — and that they can be too. Make humor a part of your day-to-day interactions with your kids and encourage them to share funny observations or reactions, even when you're around other adults.
Create a humor-rich environment. Surround your kids with funny books — for toddlers and preschoolers these include picture books or nonsense rhymes; older kids will love joke books and comics. Also check out funny TV shows, movies, and websites for all age groups — help your child make good choices and then enjoy them too.
You don't want to rain on their parade, but kids need boundaries when it comes to humor, just like they do in other areas. You don't want to encourage mean-spirited or off-color jokes, so be a good role model and avoid using humor in this way. If someone tells a hurtful or inappropriate joke, don't laugh. Take the time to explain to your child why that joke isn't funny.
You also might want to gently discourage bathroom humor or at least not participate too heartily. It won't hurt anyone's feelings but kids may have trouble determining when it's OK to make such a joke (at home, with family) and when it's not (in the classroom, at church).
The Family That Laughs Together...
Above all, humor is social. That's why you laugh harder at a funny movie when you see it in the theater with other people laughing around you than all alone on your couch.
A key aspect to developing your child's sense of humor is to take time to have fun as a family. Share jokes, play games, and watch funny movies together.
You might even adopt your own offbeat family traditions, whether it's hanging spoons off your noses or wearing matching pajamas. It will be funny now — and maybe even funnier in years to come, when you and your kids remember those silly family times.