Newsletter - The Laughter Remedy - December, 2002

Paul E. McGhee, PhD

The Importance of Nurturing Children's Sense of Humor (Continued)

Intellectual Benefits

Humor is a form of play-intellectual play, or play with ideas. While humor generally involves playing with what has already been learned, children also build new cognitive skills and learn a tremendous amount about their world while engaged in mental play. This knowledge and set of skills will support their performance in school-and in all other intellectual endeavors throughout childhood.

Vocabulary Enrichment

Since humor is really intellectual play, and language is our main vehicle for thought, it comes as no surprise that children love to play with words. They first play with the sounds of words, and then with meanings. The discovery that the same word can have two meanings is an exciting one, and spurs them on to find even more words to play with. This excitement fuels the desire to trade jokes and riddles, and to read riddle books, as well as other funny books, cartoons, etc.
In the process of seeking out and sharing humor, the child's budding vocabulary is rapidly enlarged. The desire to learn new riddles and jokes exposes the child to new words, and the repeated telling of them to friends consolidates the memory of those words. It also makes these words more readily available in the service of everyday writing and conversations.

Improved Reading Skills

In addition to the joy of telling each other riddles and jokes, children love to read riddles. Riddle books are consistently among the best selling children's books. The best way for young children to build reading skills is to simply spend a great deal of time reading. Since riddle books are read over and over again by children, this gives them the practice they need to improve their reading skills. Most importantly, the skills that are improved while reading riddles generalize to everything else the child reads, thereby improving performance in school. In many children, the love of reading riddles creates a stronger desire to read other kinds of books, as well.

General Cognitive Gains

Among preschool children, it is well established that a tremendous amount of general learning takes place while playing. Many preschool curricula are built entirely around play. The learning that occurs through verbal humor (remember, it's mental play) is just as powerful, and occurs in two basic ways.
The first involves a solidifying of what is already known. Virtually all riddles and jokes distort some part of the known world. The joke cannot be understood unless this incongruity/distortion is realized. Whenever any aspect of the child's knowledge is violated, and there are clear indications (e.g., its occurrence in the context of a cartoon, joke or riddle) that this distortion is just for fun, the laughter signals a confirmation of the child's understanding of the world. It's as if the child is saying, "That's absurd, I know that's impossible."
The second source of general intellectual gains lies in the background information present in all riddles and jokes. Any riddle involves a complex set of ideas that lead to the ultimate punch line. Reading the riddle allows the child to learn this new information. And since kids love to read riddles over and over, each rereading allows for a gradual assimilation of parts of the riddle that were not fully understood the first time.

Increased Creativity

There has been research since the 1950s documenting a close relationship between creativity and humor. This is not surprising, since both involve seeing the world in new and unusual ways. Both require you to abandon your usual way of understanding or looking at things, and consider them from a totally new perspective.
Children who get turned on to humor, then, and who spend hour after hour reading riddles and taking turns telling them to others, accumulate a tremendous amount of experience with the general notion of thinking about the world from unusual vantage points. This strengthens a general ability to think in innovative ways.
In other words, humor nurtures the child's capacity for divergent (vs. convergent) thinking-the key form of thought required for innovative problem solving. In a rapidly changing world, creative thinking is becoming more and more important. In corporate America, more than half of the 500 largest companies have provided some kind of creativity training program for their employees in recent years. This reflects their growing realization that the old solutions don't work any more. The kinds of problems which both individuals and companies are facing today are changing more rapidly than ever before.
Clearly, given the importance of creative thinking in today's world, anything you can do as a parent/teacher to boost innovative thought capacities during childhood is worth trying. Since children derive such joy from all forms of humor, supporting their play with riddles and other forms of language play is clearly worth the effort.

Social Benefits

A good sense of humor has long been recognized as a powerful interpersonal skill. It is often referred to as a "social lubricant," serving to make social interaction easier and more enjoyable. Children, as well as adults, benefit from learning to use humor in social settings.

Facilitation of Social Interaction

Children who initiate humor more often than their peers have been found to show more social participation in activities, and to be judged by their peers as being more sociable-from the preschool level through junior high school (as well as throughout adulthood). This increased level of engagement in social activities further supports the development of other social skills, and increases the chances that these children will become social leaders.
Children who know how to use humor in social interaction are also better at putting others at ease. This creates an environment in which all communication is easier. The joy, laughter and cheerful demeanor of the child with good humor skills provide a ready invitation to others to join in.

Increased Likeability

It's difficult not to like someone who makes you laugh. So children who become more skilled at initiating humor in social interaction (the skill increases simply by doing it more often) should be more popular and find it easier to develop new friendships. Research has shown this to be true for children, adolescents and adults. Children who were rated by peers as being more humorous were more likely to be picked by other children as someone they would like to do things with, while those rated as less humorous were specifically singled out as children who were liked the least. Since friends and popularity are so important throughout childhood and adolescence, kids with a better sense of humor should also be happier.

Socially Acceptable Means of Expressing Anger

Direct expression of aggression or hostility is rarely received positively by either children or adults. Freud noted long ago that humor provides an effective means of expressing aggressive feelings in a way that is not only socially acceptable, but even valued-if done cleverly. So one of the most important social functions of humor stems from its inherent ambiguity. We can use humor to say exactly what we mean or just the opposite.
The negative side of this awareness of ambiguity is that kids can make a hostile remark, and then come back with, "Hey, I was only joking," if another child gets upset at the remark. As will be noted in a later article, kids are able to begin using such a "joke façade" around 6 or 7 years of age-coincidentally, the same age at which they become capable of understanding double meaning in riddles.
The positive side of ambiguity awareness is that kids can begin using humor to disarm hostile comments by others and to manage conflicts. Effective conflict management has become a major concern in virtually all work settings. This skill is so valued in corporations that employees who show effective communication skills in the midst of conflict are more likely to get promoted. There is every reason to think that kids who learn to use humor as a means of diffusing both their own anger and the upsets of others will become adults who are skilled at using humor to put out emotional fires on the job.

[Adapted from P. McGhee, Understanding and Promoting the Development of Children's Humor, Kendall/Hunt, 2002. To order, contact the publisher at