Newsletter - The Laughter Remedy - May, 2003

Paul E. McGhee, PhD

The Development of Young Children's Humor 5

The previous article in this newsletter discussed the transition period between preschool children's humor and the first sign of adult forms of humor-the ability to play with the meaning of words. While all of the examples provided here are in English, the appearance of comparable forms of word play in German is similar to the timing discussed here, since the underlying basis for such joking is the child's level of cognitive development.

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.
Stage 5: Riddles and Jokes
(double meanings)
(6 or 7 years to 10 or 11 years)

A general shift in children's humor begins to occur in the early elementary school years. While the general silliness common to much of the humor that occurs in younger children's physical play still occurs, there is a gradual reduction in the degree of reliance on physical action for humor. Humor in the absence of actions has occurred prior to this in Stages 2, 3 and 4, but there is a much more striking reliance on thought and language alone for humor by first or second grade.
The shift that occurs in children's humor at about age seven is more striking than that shown at any other age. By seven, most kids make the exciting discovery that the same word can have two different meanings, and that you can use this to trick people. They finally begin to understand the riddles they've been telling for the previous year or so-and can now begin to enjoy easier riddles.
This is usually an exhilarating insight, and produces what some parents call the riddle disease. Kids become consumed with riddles and tell them endlessly-driving their parents crazy in the process! Most kids can go hours sharing riddles, and never tire of the next one (or the same one over and over). If your child is now at this stage, you'll be glad to know that it lasts for three years or so, and then naturally fades away as new forms of humor are discovered.
Children all over the world show an enjoyment of riddles at this age for the same underlying reason. A series of new intellectual abilities (referred to by psychologist Jean Piaget as concrete operational thinking) begin to appear around the age of seven. This makes children capable for the first time of mentally moving back and forth between meanings of words-an essential skill for getting a punch line based on a pun.
The biggest reason for the exhilaration shown in hearing and telling riddles is the sheer intellectual pleasure derived from making a meaningful link between two pieces of information that seem to be initially unrelated (which is the way it always appears when you don't get the joke). When this is done in the spirit of fun and play, it's a great source of joy.
Another source of enjoyment in riddles comes from the fact that for the first time in the child's life, she gets to be the one who has the answer-who possesses a bit of knowledge that parents, teachers, or other kids do not have. From the first grade on, the child sees that there is a premium placed on having the answer. And it always seems to be the case that teachers and parents have the answer while the child must learn it. In the case of riddles, the child gets to turn the tables. She gets to be the one who knows the answer while adults or other children who can't answer the riddle on their own are shown not to be very knowledgeable.
The following are typical of the kinds of riddles that children begin to understand in the first or second grade (note that these can be a challenge for adults, if English is not your native language):

What's gray, has four legs and a trunk? A mouse on vacation.

Why did Mrs. Smith mail three socks to her son who was away at college? Because he said he'd grown another foot since he left home.

Why can't you starve in the desert? Because of the sandwiches (sand which is) there.

Knock knock. Who's there? Lettuce. Lettuce who? Lettuce (let us) out, it's cold in here.

In the case of the second example, a Stage 4 child would be able to enjoy the silliness of the idea of growing an extra foot if a cartoon drawing of someone with three feet were shown. But a preschooler will never be able to get at the same idea via the ambiguity of the words "growing another foot." It's simply too abstract a notion to understand.
Concrete operational thinking is a prerequisite for understanding any kind of humor based on double meanings, but some puns are clearly more difficult than others. Sometimes the concepts being played with are more difficult, but a riddle can also be more difficult simply because the child is not exposed to key ideas presented in the joke until a later age. In the following riddle, for example, a first or second grader probably would not have sufficient exposure to court proceedings to understand the key ambiguity presented.

Order! Order in the court!
Ham and cheese on rye, please, Your Honor.

If you peruse the companion children's riddle book that came with this book, you will find considerable differences in difficulty of the ambiguities presented.
In some cases, a clear connection can be found between specific intellectual skills and the ability to understand and enjoy a joke or riddle. Consider the following joke:

A woman walks into a restaurant and orders a super large pizza with everything on it. The waiter asks if she'd like it cut into four or eight pieces. She says, "Four, I'm on a diet."

The ability to understand this joke requires a specific mental skill that is one part of concrete operational thinking. Piaget referred to it as "conservation of weight." You are a conserver of weight if you realize that an object's weight does not change as a function of how you change its shape, what you put it in, or how many pieces you cut it into. In this particular variation, enjoyment of the humor requires realization that the number of pieces you cut a pizza into does not influence its weight; it also does not change the number of calories eaten.
Another basic ability that comes with concrete operational thinking is the understanding that basic concepts can be classified into higher and lower order sets. For example, humans can be divided into men and women (or boys and girls), kids and adults, etc. Second graders begin to see the logical relationships that exist between these and many other concepts. For example, if you know someone is a boy, you can infer that he is a human. This kind of understanding enables school-aged children to find humor in such everyday statements by preschoolers as the following:

"I don't want any meat. I want a hamburger!"

Stage 5 children are much quicker with witty comments than their younger siblings. This can pose new challenges for parents. One seven-year-old asked to be excused from the table, and her mother said, "But Jill, you haven't even touched your broccoli." You can guess Jill's response. She gets a mischievous grin on her face, pokes at the food and says, "OK, mom, I touched it. Can I get up now?"
Finally, we haven't said much about tendentious forms of humor in this developmental profile, but rest assured that this form of humor works its way into riddles. The following is typical of a tendentious form of riddle humor among seven-year-olds:

Why did Miss Tomato turn red?
Because she saw Mr. Green pea (pee).

Even though most kids have mastered toilet training by this point, growing concerns about privacy while peeing would be enough to make this funny.
Stage 5 marks the first step into adult humor. From this point on, every passing year takes the child closer to being able to share humor that you (a parent or teacher) will also genuinely enjoy.

[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 Search by author name, McGhee.