Paul E. McGhee, PhD
How to Nurture Your Child's Sense of Humor
Over the past several months, we have looked at basic developmental changes in children's humor between infancy and age 8 or 9. These changes occur in children a round the world. Since children are intrinsically motivated to produce and enjoy humor, and since these changes are a reflection of unfolding changes in intellectual abilities, your child will certainly go through these stages with no help at all from you. However, if you want to solidify humor skills that will serve the child the rest of her life, all of the suggestions in this article and next month's article will help.
Support Play Behavior
A playful frame of mind or mood is a general prerequisite for humor, among both children and adults. (However, this does not hold in an all-or-nothing sense. The more serious your frame of mind, the less likely you are to experience any particular incident or remark as funny. Some things, however, are so funny that they can overcome your serious starting point and get you giggling anyway.)
Humor and laughter are natural byproducts of play, so anything you do to support children's ongoing play activities will indirectly contribute to the development of children's humor. If you are able to spend some time playing with your child yourself, you'll also benefit by rediscovering a part of yourself that's crucial for strengthening your own sense of humor. And don't forget, the family that plays together stays together.
Reinforce Early Attempts at Humor
Children do not need your support to be initially drawn to humor, but reinforcing early efforts at humor is important for building a level of humor skills that will be useful as a communication and coping tool later on. Positive reactions to any child's humor are not always easy, since parents get tired of hearing the same riddles or jokes over and over again. The fact that their humor is generally not funny to the parent doesn't help.
How do you go about reinforcing your child's humor efforts? By listening, laughing and sharing humor of your own. This does not mean that you have to spend your entire day guffawing at your budding comic. A short period of time and attention when she approaches you with the latest funny behavior or riddle is enough. In many cases, you'll be able to do this without stopping the household task or other job you were engaged in. When you decide it's time to get back to what you were doing, explain that you'll have time to share some more riddles later.
Try to be genuine in your reactions. If you fake a long belly laugh, she'll know you're faking it, and this could have the opposite of the desired effect. One way to counter this is to have some riddles or funny behavior of your own to add. This will show that you're really engaged in the fun of the moment, and it is one key to reinforcing the child's comic efforts.
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[The above paragraphs were 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 www.KendallHunt.com. Search by author name, McGhee.
Read Riddle Books with Your Child
If your child is seven to 10 or 11 years old, she will be at the age where she loves riddles. But as we noted in an earlier article, kids at this age repeat riddles over and over again, but they don't get better at creating their own puns or other forms of word play. To build real skills at verbal humor, they need some kind of opportunity to practice creating their own humor.
My book Stumble Bees and Pelephones (which accompanies Understanding and Promoting the Development of Children's Humor) provides children with several hundred riddles with a key part of the punch line missing. A series of three clues are provided to get the child thinking in the right direction, and the child has to use the in formation in the clues to create her own punch line. By the time she's done this for several hundred riddles, she will have built up powerful skills at playing with word meanings, and this skill will serve her the rest of her life.
Several items from Stumble Bees and Pelephones are included below to give you a sense of how children can use this approach to build humor skills. You'll find that they are not easy for you to get the answer without a clue. But, depending on your level of familiarity with the English language, you'll generally only need one clue, while children will need most of the clues. Answers are given at the end of the riddles. Be sure to make the effort to create your own answer before looking at the answers. To prevent accidentally seeing the answer, cover the computer screen (or paper if you've printed this) so you can't seen the answer as you proceed to uncover each clue.
[Riddles are taken from P. McGhee, Stumble Bees and Pelephones, 2002.]
What did the butcher put on the sign on his door? «Always glad to _____ a new customer.»
1st clue: When you talk to someone for the first time.
2nd clue: «I'd like you to _____ my friend John.»
3rd clue: What does a butcher sell?
A: meat (meet)
What do you get when you cross a dog with a Popsicle? A(n) _________.
1st clue: It's another kind of «sicle.»
2nd clue: What do you call a young dog?
3rd clue: Add your answer to clue 2 to «sicle.»
Who wears shoes that never need to be tied? A(n) ________.
1st clue: It's an animal.
2nd clue: These shoes are made of metal.
3rd clue: This animal used to do the work tractors now do.
What tree do you always plant two of? A(n) _______ tree.
1st clue: The name of the tree means two.
2nd clue: It's a fruit tree.
3rd clue: It starts with a «p.»
A: pair (pear)
What kind of furniture do you study in arithmetic class? __________
1st clue: It's not really furniture, but one of the words is a kind of furniture.
2nd clue: It's a kind of table.
3rd clue: The opposite of division.
A: Multiplication tables
What cat never plays fair in games? A(n) _________.
1st clue: It has spots and long legs.
2nd clue: What word means to not play fair?
3rd clue: This big cat runs faster than any other animal.
A: cheetah (cheater)
How do soldiers say thank you? ________.
1st clue: It's a big weapon used by the Army.
2nd clue: Soldiers are inside of this.
3rd clue: It has a turret that rotates.
A: Tanks (thanks)
What cake do you drink your coffee from? A(n) _____ cake.
1st clue: It's a kind of container.
2nd clue: It has a handle on it.
3rd clue: What do people usually drink their coffee in?
What vegetable is part of a policeman's job? A(n) _______.
1st clue: It's red.
2nd clue: A way of saying you're really tired.
3rd clue: The regular rounds an officer makes on duty.
A: beet (beat)
What happens when bees build a beehive on a telephone pole?
The phone line is always __________.
1st clue: Someone who never has time to do things is very ______.
2nd clue: What sound do bees make?
3rd clue: What signal do you get when you call someone and they're already on the phone?
A: buzzy (busy)
What's the best day of the week to make eggs for breakfast? ____ day.
1st clue: A common way of making eggs.
2nd clue: This day of the week is also the name of the pan you use to cook the eggs.
3rd clue: Last day of school before two days off.
A: Fry (Fri)
What nut always has a hole in the middle? A(n) ______ nut.
1st clue: It's not really a nut.
2nd clue: Many people have this with coffee or milk.
3rd clue: Some are covered with powdered sugar, while others are covered with chocolate.
How are gum and a sneeze alike? They both involve a(n) _______
1st clue: What do you do with gum?
2nd clue: Spell what you do when you sneeze.
3rd clue: Choo-choo train.
A: chew (achoo)
What happens to little canoes when they're bad? They get __________.
1st clue: It's a kind of spanking.
2nd clue: Find another word for «oar.»
3rd clue: Only one word works for both clues 1 and 2.