Paul E. McGhee, PhD
The Importance of Nurturing Children's Sense of Humor
During the first 16 months of this newsletter, I focused on the health benefits that have been found to be associated with humor and laughter-along with other aspects of the current "humor and health" movement. In the past 18 monthly articles, I've discussed a broad range of issues related to the value of bringing humor and fun into the workplace. For the next several months, we'll shift gears again and discuss the development of children's humor.
It's interesting, of course, to learn about the nature of children's humor in its own right. It is always delightful to observe children's play, laughter and humor. But there is another very important reason for us to spend a bit of time on this topic. Given the growing evidence that humor helps adults cope with life stress and contributes to physical health and wellness, shouldn't these benefits also hold for children? There is virtually no research on humor or laughter in connection with children's health, but there is every reason to think that the same health-promoting mechanisms associated with humor and laughter in adults would also be associated with them in children.
In the next series of articles, then, we'll look at three basic aspects of children's humor. This article and the next will discuss the range of benefits which children might be expected to receive from a more cultivated sense of humor during their growing years. Several articles will then focus on basic general developmental changes in humor through which all children pass. We will not focus on the many individual differences in humor development shown by children. A final pair of articles will focus on how to parents, teachers and others can nurture and strengthen children's budding humor skills.
When you think of children, what is the first image that pops into your mind? If you're like most people, it's play, fun and laughter. The main focus of adults' daily routine is work, but children's mission in life is to simply have fun. We are biologically predisposed to play when we are young, and it is in the context of play that young children learn the most about their world.
It is easy to think of children's play and humor as just so much silliness and fluff that kids need to get out of their system before it's time to get serious and start achieving something in life. But play, humor and laughter make important contributions to children's emotional, intellectual and social development. You can help assure that your own children receive these benefits by actively supporting the development of their humor skills.
The motivation to play and laugh is built into us as a species, so young children will be interested in play and humor even if you make no special effort to nurture these behaviors. However, widespread individual differences in humor skills can be seen increasingly as children get older. You can boost the odds of your child receiving the benefits listed below by responding positively to her budding sense of humor when the opportunity presents itself. Doing so will help build a pool of key intellectual, social and emotional skills that will serve the child well the rest of her life.
In addition to the contributions to intellectual and social development to be noted next month, humor supports children's emotional well being in several ways.
Increased Joy and Happiness
The most obvious thing about children when they are laughing and playing is the inherent joy and happiness in what they're doing. Their faces beam with delight and they become so engrossed in the fun of the moment that they often do not even hear you when you speak to them. And it is important to realize that this relationship between joy and humor is a two-way street. That is, children are more likely to experience humor when in a happy, joyful state of mind, but can also create joy and happiness (that wasn't previously there) by engaging in humor and play.
We will discuss in a future article how children who learn to use humor as an active coping tool for dealing with upsets, anxieties and fears can even learn to create joy and happiness out of unhappiness. They learn to pull themselves up by their emotional bootstraps into a more positive, upbeat outlook on life. This skill will help assure good mental health into their adult years.
Heightened Self Esteem
Children with good humor skills are more popular and form friendships more readily, and this leads them to feel better about themselves. The intellectual gains stimulated by humor (discussed next month) increase the odds of doing well in school, further strengthening the child's growing sense of self-esteem. These good feelings about oneself will serve the child well the rest of her life.
Tool for Coping with Life Stress
There is now considerable evidence that humor is a powerful tool in coping with life stress among adults. With today's constantly escalating stress levels in relationships and on the job, it is more important than ever to find effective tools that give you the emotional resilience you need to handle these daily stresses and be happy. Kids who build strong humor skills prior to the adult years have a powerful advantage over their terminally serious peers when it comes to navigating daily stressors.
Evidence of the growing national awareness of the importance of having a good sense of humor can be found in the fact that corporations and hospitals in the USA pay consultants to help employees learn to use humor to cope with job stress. If corporations see the importance of helping their employees learn to lighten up in the midst of stress, there's clearly value in helping your child learn the same thing before she ever starts that first stress-producing job.
Childhood is actually the most effective time to learn to use humor as a coping tool. Kids who learn to use humor to manage upsets and difficult feelings will have a coping advantage the rest of their lives, because this skill will be well-honed by the time they become adults.
Among preschool children, play therapy has been known for many years to be an effective way to help young children cope with difficult experiences and emotions. Humor-as a form of play-has the same power beyond the preschool years. Older children can use humor to achieve mastery over anxiety, and to release angry feelings, just as adults do.
Physical Health Benefits
There is very little research on the physical health benefits of humor among children. One study found that humor boosts levels of immunoglobulin A (a part of the immune system that helps protect children against upper respiratory problems like colds or the flu). However, as we have seen in earlier articles in this newsletter, there is considerable evidence for adults that humor and laughter make important contributions to physical health and wellness. Many adult studies show that humor and laughter provide a powerful boost to the immune system, and also reduce pain. More limited amounts of research suggest that humor helps maintain lower blood pressure, and also has various cardiac and respiratory benefits.
The broader area of medical research called PNI (psychoneuroimmunology) has also shown that keeping a positive, optimistic outlook in life makes an important contribution to health and wellness. Your sense of humor is a powerful tool for sustaining such an outlook.
There is every reason to think that the same mechanisms that lead humor and laughter to promote health in adults are also operating in children. Therefore, helping your child build stronger humor skills now should also support physical health and wellness during childhood and adolescence.
[Adapted from P. McGhee, Understanding and Promoting the Development of Children's Humor, Kendall/Hunt, 2002. To order, contact the publisher at www.KendallHunt.com.