Newsletter - The Laughter Remedy - June, 2003

Paul E. McGhee, PhD

The Development of Young Children's Humor 6

The previous article in this newsletter discussed the universal enjoyment of children's riddles, beginning at 6 or 7 years of age. The present article explains why riddles are very funny to children for a few years and then become progressively less funny.

The Role of Mental Challenge

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.

One of the most important outcomes (for parents and teachers) of an improved understanding of basic developmental changes in children's humor is the ability to share humor at the child's own developmental level. This is important, since there is evidence that jokes, riddles and other forms of humor are funniest when they match the child's current level of intellectual development. So riddles and other forms of humor are most funny when they're neither too easy nor too difficult to understand.
Any parent or teacher who has spent time with kids of varying age levels knows that the things that were funny last year (or sometimes, a few months ago) just aren't very funny any more. Children's own mental abilities are progressing at lightning speed, so the things they were laughing at not long ago just don't offer enough of a challenge to be funny any more. Some kids will tell you in their own words that those jokes are for "little kids," and that they're too old for them now.
This is easiest to demonstrate with the pizza joke presented last month. Research has shown that children who have not yet acquired the intellectual skill called conservation of weight don't find this and other similar jokes very funny because they just don't understand them. Such jokes are also not very funny to 9- and 10-year-olds, because they're too easy to understand. The jokes are funniest for the first year or two after the intellectual ability to understand them is acquired, and then became less and less funny as kids get older. This provides strong support for the basic notion that funniness of a joke is greatest when there is some optimal moderate amount of mental effort required to get the point. Jokes or other humor that requires either very little effort or a great amount of effort for comprehension are less funny.
From the elementary school years on (and most likely during the preschool years, as well), the degree of "emotional salience" of a joke or riddle combines with the level of mental challenge to determine its overall funniness. That is, if the joke taps into some emotional issue that the child is dealing with at the moment, this will make it funnier than it would otherwise be.
In the case of the "Green pea (pee) riddle presented last month (Why did Miss. Tomato turn red? Because she saw Mr. Green pea/pee.), a seven-year-old who has just acquired the intellectual ability to get the pun will find the riddle even funnier if she has become concerned about privacy issues when peeing. If the same joke alluded to peeing in your pants, this would boost its funniness for those kids who still have occasional bladder control accidents. It would not contribute to funniness for those kids who've long ago mastered bladder issues.
It should also be noted, however, that if bladder control is an especially sensitive topic, and a source of very high anxiety (maybe because other kids have teased the child), this pattern will not hold. That is, funniness of any joke related to wetting would be reduced, not increased. Humor, in this case would not help master the source of anxiety.
At any point in children's, adolescents' or adults' lives, degree of difficulty in getting the punch line of a joke and degree of emotional salience of its content will always interact to determine its funniness.

Discovery of the Joke Façade
Learning to Use Humor to Cope
(Beginning at 6 or 7 years)

At about the same time children become capable of understanding double-meaning humor, they begin to realize that they can get away with saying things in a playful or humorous way that they can't say otherwise. Until age six or seven, children often appear cruel in their sense of humor, because they laugh directly at another child's (or adult's) big nose, thick glasses, odd way of walking, etc. They're not really being cruel, however, since they're not yet intellectually able to spontaneously put themselves in the other person's position.
By age seven, children do have such empathic abilities, so some of their humor can be viewed as cruel. They can now choose to hide behind the façade of a joke to say things that are purposefully hurtful. If the other child is offended by a joking remark, the joke-teller can always say, "Hey, I was only kidding. What's the matter, can't you take a joke?"
It is during the elementary school years that kids begin to tell put-down jokes. The favorite butts of jokes change from generation to generation, but they're always there (e.g., morons, dumb blondes, the opposite sex, a specific racial or ethnic group, etc.). As they approach junior high school, some kids appear to cultivate the joke façade as a finely honed tool for expressing hostility toward others.
Fortunately, there is also a more positive side of discovery of the joke façade. Humor can now be used to defuse some of the emotional power that any source of
anxiety, fear or anger has over us. This marks the beginning of the potential for the coping function of humor that many adolescents and adults find crucial in managing the many sources of stress and conflict in our lives.
Among school-aged children, humor can be used to express fears or anxiety about a situation currently being dealt with. For example, if the source of anxiety is sleeping in the dark (with the light off), the child may start joking about things happening in the dark. The joke gives the child the opportunity to laugh in the face of the source of anxiety. Therapists have realized for years that when you can laugh in the face of your fears it provides a tremendous feeling of emotional mastery over the fearful situation. It generates the feeling, "Ha, this isn't so bad. I can handle this."
Many kids learn on their own that when you can joke or laugh in the midst of a scary situation, it is emotionally liberating and creates a sense of power over the thing which just doesn't seem so scary any more. This is an important lesson for all kids to learn at some point in growing up; the earlier it is learned, the more likely the child is to become an adult who can use humor to cope.

[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.