Newsletter - The Laughter Remedy - January, 2003

Paul E. McGhee, PhD

The Development of Young Children's Humor 1

In the previous two articles in this newsletter, we focused on the many social, emotional and intellectual benefits children receive from humor and laughter during their early years. In order to assure that your own children receive those benefits, it is essential to have a good understanding of just how children' humor changes as they get older. The articles during the next few months will give you a good understanding of these changes.

What is Humor?

Researchers and academics who study humor in depth have spent many decades trying to reach agreement on a definition of humor, but have been unable to do so. My own view is that humor is a form of play-intellectual play, or play with ideas.
As you move up the phylogenetic scale (from simpler to higher order species), play becomes a more and more striking feature of animals' behavior. This is true especially when the animal is young, and when it is not threatened by the environment in some way or biologically aroused. As higher-order species evolved, they inherited a general predisposition to play with any new capacities that were developed. So as we humans developed more abstract symbolic capacities, it was only natural to play with them. In my view, this is exactly what humor is-a kind of symbolic play.
It is built into us to derive pleasure and joy from playfully distorting the world as we know it-from turning reality on its ear. As our intellectual abilities grow throughout childhood, these abilities are reflected in the new forms of humor children are able to enjoy and create.
A separate form of humor has a different dynamic operating to determine what is and is not funny. Freud called it "tendentious" humor, because it reflects emotional tendencies or issues we have toward the content of the humor. So a simple joke can be made funnier just by using content that is emotionally salient. If you have emotional issues regarding your parents or your boss, for example, a joke poking fun at them might be especially funny. Similarly, emotional issues related to sex or aggression might make humor with sexual or aggressive themes funnier.
This dynamic explains why little kids find words like "pee-pee" or "ka-ka" so funny-especially when they're learning to control these functions. At a later time, jokes about sexuality or dating may be funny for the same reason. The developmental stages described below will not include changes in this kind of humor. However, remember that at each developmental stage, those issues that are most emotionally salient will be particularly funny when alluded to in jokes or riddles.
For each of the stages described below, also keep in mind that the age norms listed are offered only as general guidelines. Some children enter a given stage much earlier than others, although the age norms indicated do reflect an average age of onset. Most children continue to show the previous stage of humor long after the new form of humor first appears. Many will continue to show a given level of humor long past the end point of the age norms shown here. The age ranges shown reflect the peak of humor associated with that stage.

Stage 0: Laughter Without Humor
(First 6 months)

Chances are you've never thought much about when infants first experience humor. Pinpointing it is much tougher than you might guess. Since an infant can't tell you when something is or is not funny, how do you decide? The most obvious indicator, of course, is laughter. When an infant laughs, something must be funny. Right? The problem with this is that you can't even make this assumption with adults or older children. We all laugh at times when we don't find anything funny. We display nervous laughter and polite social laughter (typically designed to keep the conversation going), for example. Sometimes we just laugh because we're excited. To this day, I still find myself laughing on a roller coaster.
Since children and adults laugh for reasons having nothing to do with humor, infants may well do the same. In fact, research on infants suggests that anything that is physiologically arousing to them, in a familiar or non-threatening situation, can trigger laughter. All parents know that bouncing the infant on your knee, quickly lowering her, or tickling are reliable causes of laughter.
Many forms of tactile stimulation yield laughter. When my son was four months old, I could almost always elicit laughter by running my fingers up his stomach to his neck, making a high-pitched repetitive sound ("boop, boop, boop") along the way. Blowing "raspberries" on his stomach also usually worked, along with the traditional tickling in just the right places.
If humor really does involve altering (in a playful frame of mind) one's knowledge of the world, these examples clearly do not qualify as humor-even though there is laughter, and the child seems to be in a playful frame of mind. So when does the child acquire a firm enough mastery in her understanding of parts of the world to experience distortion of it as funny?

Stage 1: Laughter at the
Attachment Figure
(6 to 12 or 15 months)

In my view, the earliest form of humor is reacted to, rather than created by the infant. The infant's parents (or other primary attachment figure) are the most important part of her life. And since the parents are always around, their faces and behavior are the best-learned features of the infant's new world. Parents are also emotionally important to the infant, and are associated with satisfying basic needs. So it's not surprising that the earliest form of humor experienced by infants involves things the parents do.
By the age of six or seven months, you can find infants laughing at any unusual behavior of the parent. This might include something like: waddling like a penguin, making silly faces, sticking half a banana out of the mouth, making exaggerated animal sounds (barking, mooing, etc.), opening eyes very wide and bulging them out, sucking on a baby bottle, and so forth. (Surely you've tried these yourself!)
These things are funny to the infant precisely because they are recognized as being something beyond the usual pattern of behavior the parents have always shown. If the child's parents had always walked like penguins or had bananas sticking out of their mouths for the first six months of the child's life, these would be normal behaviors-and would not be funny.
When my son was 7 months old, holding a (clean) diaper under my nose was always funny. At 9 months, doing an exaggerated "Aaaaachoo!" after his own sneeze made him laugh hard. After the second or third time, I only had to do the "Aaaaah" part to get a laugh.
One mother noticed that her baby seemed to be having trouble getting milk from her bottle. Guessing that the nipple was clogged, she just popped the bottle into her own mouth to check it out. The baby laughed as soon as she saw the bottle in her mother's mouth.
Some examples of infant laughter from six to twelve months seem very similar to the laughter shown in the first six months, making it very difficult to know whether the laughter is reflective of humor or not. For example, the game of peek-a-boo is a popular source of laughter in Stage 1-especially when it's done in an animated way, with a changed voice, or with the parent's face popping up in an unexpected or surprising place. The physiological arousal generated by peek-a-boo-in itself-makes it seem more like the laughter in Stage 0. But when elements of surprise and deviation from the usual (the altered voice or face appearing in an unexpected place) creep in, the experience comes closer to qualifying as humor.
The most confusing part of the distinction between Stage 0 and Stage 1 laughter lies in how to interpret a physical or tactile cause of laughter. My own view is that by Stage 1, the underlying physiological arousal (see discussion of Stage 0) that comes from active physical play contributes to the funniness of humor when there is also a separate intellectual basis for something being funny. It does not, however, produce humor in its own right, just as it is not a basis for humor in Stage 0. So from the second half of year one on, vigorous physical play adds to the funniness of things because it adds to kids' excitement level in general. This contribution to humor is especially noticeable during the preschool years.
At 8 or 9 months, my son was accustomed to the usual tune of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." One day I changed it by singing it faster and "rougher" (with a rough, throaty voice) when I got to the "how I wonder what you are" part. This was a good trigger for laughter for several weeks. The fact that it was a distortion of the familiar song suggests that this laughter was indicative of humor.

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

A companion book, Stumble Bees and Pelephones, gives school-aged children opportunities to build their humor skills by using clues to come up with their own answer to riddles with a key part of the punch line missing. The books are shrink-wrapped together. Cost for the pair is $16.]