Newsletter - The Laughter Remedy - March, 2003

Paul E. McGhee, PhD

The Development of Young Children's Humor 3

The previous article in this newsletter discussed basic developmental changes in children's humor between 1 and 3 or 4 years of age. This month, we'll focus on the classic preschool years-roughly 3 to 5 years of age. As with all the stages of humor development discussed in this series, the key is to remember that while all children can be expected to go through the sequence of stages presented here, some will do so earlier than the age norms listed while others do so later.

Stage 4a:
Playing With Word Sounds (not meanings)
(3 to 5 years)

Several new forms of humor emerge by the end of the third year. Simply calling things by the wrong name continues to be funny after age two, but a new way of playing with words appears around age three (as early is 2 1/2 in some children). Children become very attuned to the way words sound, and begin playing with the sounds themselves. This often takes the form of repeating variations of a familiar word over and over, such as «daddy, faddy, paddy,» or «silly, dilly, willy, squilly.»
Sound play may also show up by altering the sound of a single word in an otherwise normal sentence, such as «I want more tato-wato-chatos» for potatoes. Complete nonsense words may also appear, as in «Let's all spooty-dotty-ditty-bip.» In the second half of his third year, my son enjoyed nonsense words so much that we often had verbal jousting sessions in which we would take turns hurling nonsense sounds at each other. This was great fun off and on for several months. The well-known (in the USA) cartoon character Sylvester the Cat utilizes this source of fun in young children with his familiar distortion of speech: «I taut I taw a putty tat.»
Even though children understand the meaning of familiar words at this point, their thinking is heavily influenced by the perceptual features of their world-the way things look, feel or sound (see discussion of Stage 4c). It is to be expected, then, that changing the sounds of words is a ripe source of humor at this age.

Stage 4b:
Nonsense Real-Word Combinations
(3 to 5 years)

In addition to playing with the sounds of words, most (but not all) three-year-olds also start putting real words together in nonsensical combinations known to be wrong. Their budding linguistic competence tells them that words are put together in certain combinations, but not others. So we would expect them to find great fun in simply putting words together in ways known to be silly or wrong. These combinations appear to simply be another way of distorting the known properties of objects, as described in stage 4c.

The following are typical of this kind of humor:

«I want more tree milk.»
«I have a mail box flower.»
«I want more potato (dirt, guitar, etc.) juice.»
«I want a peanut butter chair.»

My son showed a lot of this form of humor just prior to age three, possibly because we joined right in after his first humor of this type with such comments as, «Would you like some French-fried bees knees?» or «How about a buttered chair?» or «Do you want any bicycle corn?»
We were especially delighted the day he changed a familiar game we played. My wife or I would sing, «peanut, peanut butter» and he would chime in, «and jelly.» Sometimes he would start out, and we said, «and jelly.» We would repeat this 5-10 times before he was ready to move on to something else. One day, at 28 months, instead of saying, «and jelly,» he said, «and refrigerator» (and laughed). In the days that followed, we heard «and light,» «and daddy,» «and tree,» etc. Anything that he happened to see at the moment was fair game.
We also sang (to the same tune) «maca, macaroni,» and his part was to say, «and cheese.» Again, sometimes he would start and sometimes we would. Within a few days of the first occurrence of the above example, he said, «and shoes,» «and bib,» «and TV,» instead of «and macaroni,» again with beaming eyes. Most kids show this great delight when they create something they know to be at odds with reality.
As with previous stages, some children may show this as early as two and one half, while others may show it at three and one half. While all children show each of the others parts of stage 4, a small percentage of children never get into the fun of putting real-word combinations together in a nonsensical order. I have no idea why this exception to the general developmental pattern occurs.

Stage 4c:
Distortion of Features of Objects, People or Animals
(3 to 5 years)

By age three, children go beyond knowing that things have names to an understanding that these names apply to classes or categories of objects that share certain key features. The famous Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget referred to this as the onset of conceptual thinking. Even though the child has been using the word «dog» correctly in referring to many different dogs, this is the first point at which «dog» is thought of as a category of animals with certain shared features. This includes barking (vs. meowing or mooing), a certain range of differences in size, color, hair length, tail length, etc., four feet, no hands, two ears, etc. A new form of humor, then, can be expected to involve a violation of any of these features that define «dog» in the child's mind.
Stage 3 humor still occurs at this point, but most children find it much funnier to distort some aspect of their new conceptual understanding of objects than to simply call them by the wrong name. The examples below illustrate the most common forms of humor at this stage, although they are not exhaustive of the types that appear:

Adding features that don't belong

1) A dog's head on a man's body.
2) A tree with cakes growing on it.
3) Cats and dogs coming from clouds, instead of rain.

Removing features that do belong:

1) A cat with no tail or legs.
2) A car with no wheels.
3) A person with no nose or ears.

Changing the shape, size, location, color, length, etc. of familiar things

1) A person with a square head, polka dot ears, or eyes in the wrong place.
2) Exaggerated features, such as a long skinny neck, big ears, enormous or very pointy nose, etc.
3) Eyes and ears in reversed places. (Try it with Mr. Potato Head.)
4) Wrong proportions (e.g., real long arms and short legs, a large man with a tiny hat (or vice versa), enormous clown feet, etc.

Incongruous or impossible behavior
(as in Far Side cartoons)

1) A cow on roller skates or sitting in a tree whistling like a bird.
2) A baby pushing a carriage containing an adult in diapers, sucking on a bottle.
3) A dog playing a piano and singing.

Even though children laugh at these things, either created by themselves, seen on TV, or read in books, the firmness of their level of confidence in what is and is not possible is often seen in their questions to parents. «Daddy, pigs can't really fly, can they?» «Lions don't read books, do they?» «Cars can't drive themselves, can they?» Many children enjoy pretending to think that you may also be confused by what's possible, so they tell you, «It's just pretend daddy. Trains can't jump.» If you're like many parents, you will feign confusion about just what animals, trains, etc. can and cannot do-to the child's great delight.

Stage 4d:
Gender Reversal (A new form of Stage 3 humor)
(3 to 5 years)

One important concept that children are struggling to master in the preschool years is gender. In the midst of this, it becomes great fun to call other children by the wrong gender name, or to simply call them by a specific name associated with the opposite sex. If you listen to three-year-olds playing, at some point you may hear a taunting, «Ha, ha, Johnny is a girl, Johnny is a girl» or «Look, it's Mary» to Tommy, or «Hi Bobby» (to Susie). While this kind of humor is very strong in some children, it is almost completely lacking in others.
Two-year-olds may call mommy daddy, and vice versa, but this is probably a reflection of the more general joy in calling things by the wrong name rather than playing with a reversal of gender.

[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.]