Newsletter - The Laughter Remedy - April, 2003

Paul E. McGhee, PhD

The Development of Young Children's Humor 4

The previous article in this newsletter discussed basic developmental changes in children's humor during the preschool years-roughly 3 to 5 years of age. This month, we'll consider a most enjoyable period in the development of children's humor. It's not really a developmental stage in its own right; rather, it's a transition between stages. But since most kids show a similar pattern of humor during this transition period, this age (5 to 7 years) will be discussed separately. But first, a brief comment about a common source of preschool children's laughter is provided.

Laughter During Physical Play: Is it Humor?

One of the most striking features of preschoolers' free and unstructured play is the sense of exhilaration and joy they show. There is often hearty laughter-and even screaming-in the midst of running, chasing, jumping, making faces, clowning around, etc. Researchers have even given a name to this phenomenon: group glee.
While laughter is the most dominating feature of group glee, does this mean that the laughing kids are experiencing humor? Even if you watch carefully, it's often difficult to find anything in particular that has struck the kids as funny. My own view is that such group glee does not necessarily reflect humor. They're having fun, but there's nothing funny going on. Kids simply need a release for the tension or excitement-the general arousal-that escalates during ongoing play and laughter provides that release.
At the same time, however, laughter generates or sustains a mood in which children are more likely to experience humor. So group glee can turn the tables and produce humor from laughter, instead of the usual case of laughter being a reflection of humor. In any specific case, it may be very difficult to tell which came first. But regardless of which came first, the generalized excitement of group glee can contribute to the funniness of humor when it does occur. That is, the readiness to laugh that goes along with group glee actually makes a funny situation or statement even funnier to the child than it would otherwise be.

Pre-Riddle Stage (transition period)
(5 to 6 or 7 years)

By age five, most children become interested in the verbal humor shared by older children around them. They hear other kids ask puzzling questions and then give what appear to be very arbitrary answers that are followed by laughter. So they simply imitate what they hear other kids doing. This can trick you into thinking the riddles they tell are understood, because they are told correctly. But all American parents have also heard their kindergartners tell such riddles or knock-knock jokes as:

What did the cat say to the mouse?
I'm gonna eat you up!

Knock-knock. Who's there? Nobody's home!

Knock-knock. Who's there? Piece of bread. Piece of bread who? Piece of bread . . . Want another piece of bread?

If your native language is German, French or Italian (or any other language), you've heard the same kind of thing in that language.
When five- and six-year-olds tell these riddles and jokes, they typically laugh as soon as they tell them. Parents can genuinely share this laughter-but for a very different reason. Children's off-the-wall answers to their own riddles are very funny, because they make no sense at all. Kids don't really understand the riddles at this age, so their answers seem just as good as those older kids give.
The fact that children still have occasional accidents in bowel and bladder control at this age makes this theme emotionally salient. So you can also expect to hear such riddles as this:

Knock-knock. Who's there? Pee. Pee who?
Pee-pee in your pants! (Ha, ha, ha!)

[Note: Such "knock-knock" jokes have long been popular among school-age American children. Other cultures may not have this specific form of humor, but they generally have the familiar question-answer format of children's riddles.]
In the 1970s, I conducted a study that documented five- and six-year-olds' inability to understand riddles based on double meanings. You can have fun with your child doing the same thing. Make up a joking and serious answer to a riddle, and ask the child to choose which one is the funniest. Use the following as models.

Why did Mr. Jones tiptoe past the medicine cabinet?
A) He dropped a glass on the floor, and didn't want to cut his foot.
B) He didn't want to wake up the sleeping pills.

Why did Mr. Smith jump off the Empire State Building?
A) He forgot his glasses, and didn't know he was up so high.
B) He wanted to try out his new spring suit.

There's a 50-50 chance of getting these right, of course, but if you do 10 of these, it will become clear when your child is just guessing without any real comprehension.
My book Stumble Bees & Pelephones (see for a description; click on "products") gives kids an opportunity to build real skills at understanding and creating their own riddles during this transition age by providing clues to get them thinking in the right direction in answering riddle questions with a key part of the punch line missing. Once kids are "ready" to understand riddles in English, this approach allows them to strengthen the skill.
Next month, we'll talk in detail about the universal appeal of riddles at the age of 6 or 7 years of age.

[Adapted from P. McGhee, Understanding and Promoting the Development of Children's Humor, Kendall/Hunt, 2002. This book comes shrink-wrapped together with Stumble Bees & Pelephones. $16 for the pair. To order, contact the publisher at