Newsletter - The Laughter Remedy - February, 2003

Paul E. McGhee, PhD

The Development of Young Children's Humor 2

The previous article in this newsletter discussed the onset of humor in infants and the nature of the earliest form of humor. This month's article continues that discussion of basic developmental changes for children between 1 and 3 or 4 years of age.

Stage 2:
Treating an Object as a Different Object
(12 or 15 months to 3, 4 or 5 years)

By the beginning of the second year, infants begin to show a new and exciting behavior-pretend. For the first time, they start treating objects as if they were some other object. Not all pretend at this or any other age is humor, but it is this capacity for pretend that paves the way for the earliest humor created by the child.
Once the first birthday is passed, you may begin to see any of the following in your child: putting a bowl, diaper, washcloth, etc., on her (or your) head as a hat; using any small long object as a toothbrush; or holding a shoe (or spoon) to her ear saying, "hello daddy." At 26 months, my son, who did not want to cooperate with an imminent diaper change, said, "Don't want diaper changed. Give tape a new diaper." He then put a videotape onto the new diaper and laughed. At 20 months, I put his pants on my head (like a hat) as I was getting him ready for bed. He laughed, and when I took them off, he quickly handed them back to me and said, "Again, again!" with a big grin on his face.
A classic example of stage 2 humor occurred at 24 months, when he took his shoes and put them on his hands, saying, "Look, shoes on." While he did not laugh this time, he had a mischievous smile on his face that reflected obvious pride in his insight.
At 22 months, my wife was brushing my son's teeth. He looked up with a glint in his eye and said, "Brush nose?" After a good laugh at his own witty remark, he followed with, "Brush ear?" In this case, he was using the correct object, but applying it to the wrong object.
Three things are key here. First, this is the earliest kind of humor initiated by the child. Secondly, the same behavior may be just as funny if it is the mother, father or another sibling who initiates it. Finally, the very same incongruous behavior may be experienced as either humorous or an interesting idea to explore. The key is the child's frame of mind at the time the incongruous action occurs. Children actively explore their world both physically and intellectually, and this curiosity and exploration can occur in either a more serious or playful frame of mind. But incongruous actions toward objects will lead to the experience of humor only when they are executed in the context of a playful frame of mind.
Play behavior in general can occur in either a serious or playful frame of mind. Playful play is most likely to occur in a familiar setting with familiar objects. When a new object is encountered, a more serious form of play with a learning focus occurs, and children actively explore the object to learn its properties. But once the properties of the object are well learned, more playful forms of play occur. This sequence of exploration followed by play is referred to by researchers as the "mastery-play cycle."
Humor is just one form of playful play. The child can have great fun with objects without ever acting on them in incongruous ways. But once an object is very familiar, children derive great pleasure in using it in unusual or inappropriate ways. Sometimes this is done in the context of pretend just to see what happens. At other times, the "wrong action" is directed toward an object precisely because it is known to be wrong. This playful distortion of the correct action toward the object is the core property of this early form of humor.

Stage 3:
Misnaming Objects or Actions
(2 to 3 or 4 years)

While humor based on using objects in "wrong" ways continues throughout the peak of pretend behavior during the preschool years, budding language skills generate new opportunities for humor. After age two, parents increasingly hear, "What's that? What's that?" Two-year-olds are very excited by the realization that everything has a name, and they are thirsty sponges for every name you can give them. Since they have built into them a strong drive to play with all new skills, it's just a matter of time before they begin playing with the names of things. So what do they do? They give you the wrong name!
Many parents first see this new form of humor in the "Show me your nose" game. Even if you've always played the game straight yourself, the day always arrives when you say, "Show me your nose," and your child gets a mischievous grin on her face and points to . . . her ear! She may or may not laugh, but there's no doubt that this is pretty funny to her.
Once this insight is achieved-that it's hilarious to call something a name you know is wrong-every object or person is fair game. Cats will be called dogs, mommy will be called daddy, daddy will be called the child's own name, and so on. It's all just too funny!
My son loved to screw up words in familiar songs. One day, at 26 months, he sang a new version of a song he had been singing the right way for months. He sang, "Head, shoulders, knees and mommy," and laughed. In subsequent days, "mommy" was replaced by "yogurt," "toast," Telletubbies," and more. At about the same time, the alphabet song was transformed to "A, B, C, D, E, F, alligator," again accompanied by great guffaws.
At 26 months, he also picked up a toy dog and said, "Here kitty, kitty." While he laughed at this, this was also the age at which he began giving answers he knew to be wrong-without laughing. For example, one day his mom said, "Where'd the yogurt go? Into your mouth and down to your tummy." His immediate reaction was, "No, in the light!" Only a slight grin gave away the fact that he intentionally distorted the obvious. Was this the beginning of a dry sense of humor?
Children also now have the mental tools to use language to playfully (or seriously) mislead you in other ways. One three-year-old said (with a grin), "Mama, Lisa (an older sister) pinch me." Mom said, "Now, Bobby, what really happened?" With an even bigger grin, Bobby answered, "Lisa hug me."
It's interesting to note that chimpanzees and gorillas that have been taught sign language show this same use of language to playfully distort things. They give the wrong sign even though they've long since mastered it, giving the correct sign repeatedly in the past. This adds to the notion that humor is an inevitable form of mental play that occurs when higher order symbolic capacities appear in species which already possess an underlying general predisposition to play.

Stage 3a: Opposites -
A Special Case of Misnaming
(2 to 3 or 4 years)

Many (but not all) children are especially drawn to a specific form of mislabeling objects and events-giving the exact opposite of the word known to be correct. So a hat that's too big is said to be "too small." If you say a toy is upstairs, she says it's downstairs. If you say, "Be careful, that pan is hot!" she says, "No, it's cold!" If you say, "OK, it's time to go," she says, "No, it's time to stay."
In many cases, this quick reversal of whatever you say is just another variation of the negativity toddlers show as part of their first step toward independence. In other cases, it's clearly designed to be funny. At 29 months, while playing "Ring Around the Rosie," my son sang, "Ashes, ashes, we all fall up!" His own laughter left no doubt that this was intended as a joke.

[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.]