Why Laughter Is a Sign of Learning

Getting -- and giving -- the giggles is an important part of your child's development.

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My 1-year-old son, River, has earned the nickname "Giddy Boy." He giggles heartily at funny faces, howls at peekaboo, and awards our silly antics with big-time belly laughs. For my husband, Todd, and me, it's infectious. As parents of four children under age 7, we feel grateful that moments of pure joy come so often and so easily in a highly harried household.

Laughter's ability to diffuse stress is just one of many reasons why it's a critical part of a child's development. Having a sense of humor plays an important role in developing self-esteem, learning to problem solve, and honing social skills, explains Louis Franzini, PhD, author of Kids Who Laugh: How to Develop Your Child's Sense of Humor (Square One). "It's one of the most desirable personality traits," he says. "And parents can, without a doubt, help foster it." Happily, it's one skill you'll reinforce with pleasure. Here's how to tickle your little guy's funny bone as he grows.

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As anyone who's watched Comedy Central can attest, humor takes a wide variety of forms -- in word play, visual jokes, or simply using the element of surprise. But most experts agree that the root of humor is taking something in its familiar form and turning it upside down or making it offbeat.

That's why very young babies really don't have a sense of humor -- they're still learning how the world looks, feels, and sounds in an ordinary context, so they don't "get the joke" when something's out of whack. Hence, a baby's first peals of laughter at around 4 months tend to be a response to arousal. A ride on a bouncing knee, for instance, gets a laugh because it's physically stimulating.

But just a few months later, funny sounds coming from a toy will evoke a smile or a laugh. Starting around the 6-month mark, babies have enough information about the world around them to be surprised -- and delighted -- at the unexpected. "Infants experience pleasure from processing information that's a little bit new and a little bit similar," says Paul E. McGhee, PhD, a developmental psychologist and author of Understanding and Promoting the Development of Children's Humor (Kendall/Hunt).

Peekaboo becomes a funny-bone favorite now, and almost anything that is decidedly out of their ordinary realm of experience gives kids the giggles. Adam Perlman loves to pretend to drink out of a sippy cup just to get his 1-year-old son's reaction. "As soon as I put it in my mouth, Charlie cracks up," says the Randolph, New Jersey, father of five. "I'm his favorite comedian!" Understanding that Daddy is a grown-up and doesn't drink out of sippy cups is where a child's sense of humor begins, explains McGhee.

A leap in cognitive development during your child's second year enables him to grasp auditory and visual jokes, ex- plains Kimberly Zimlich, MD, a pediatrician in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. "By their second birthday, kids have a basic mastery of simple rules and patterns. Hence, they appreciate the humor in breaking them," she says. If, for instance, your child knows for sure that the cow says "moo," she might find it very funny if you took a stuffed cat or dog and made it say "moo."

As language skills develop, word play becomes a big part of toddler humor. Anything that rhymes is funny to 2-1/2-year-old Piper Samuels. "She also thinks it's hysterical to sing in a goofy voice," says her mother, Dina Petringa, of Alameda, California.

A child's sense of humor really takes flight when she starts enjoying imaginative play around age 3. Preschoolers love to make their own jokes -- showing up in Mom's high heels to get Grandma laughing, changing the ending of a favorite song to nonsense words, or even telling silly knock-knock jokes (though sometimes with completely indecipherable punch lines!).

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