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Why Laughter Is a Sign of Learning

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.

Laugh Track

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!).

Are you raising a future Seinfeld? Unless you're Jerry himself, probably not. But having a good sense of humor is much more important than just having the ability to tell funny jokes. It's a frame of mind that allows you to see the lighter side of life. "Humor transforms reality to help us cope with stressful experiences," says Tom Cottle, PhD, a psychologist in Boston. Identifying and enjoying the sillier stuff in life makes it easier to handle tougher times.

Three-year-old Jackson Filosa used his sense of humor to manage the fear and anxiety that loomed large when his mother, Tracy, had to go out of town to Maine. He put on her hat and exclaimed, "I'm going to Maine!" before she left for the airport. "He did it to make us all smile, and it worked like magic," says Tracy, who lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

Humor also plays an enormous role in self-esteem. "Since children with a good sense of humor tend to be more popular and form friendships more readily, they generally feel better about themselves," explains McGhee. And let's not forget the healing power of humor; a child who can make a friend laugh when she's feeling blue is one who understands the importance of empathy and sympathy. Similarly, a child who can laugh at himself when he makes a mistake has an easier time accepting imperfection and is less afraid to attempt the task again.

Of course, not all kinds of comedy deserve our praise. Humor can be hurtful or just plain gross, says Cottle. And what one group finds hysterical, another may find offensive. "It can be very confusing to children," he adds, "because some of the most socially unacceptable things are a riot."

For toddlers, such humor usually centers around all things bathroom-related. "Right around potty-training time, children become fascinated with their body, its functions, and what comes out of it," explains Timothy Jay, PhD, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Massachusetts, and author of What to Do When Your Kids Talk Dirty (Resource).

Obsessing over poop and pee is a totally normal way for children to deal with the challenge of managing bodily functions; gaining such control can be daunting for a young child. Experts suggest taking this phase in stride. Overreacting to bathroom humor may unwittingly reinforce the idea that it's taboo, which only makes it funnier to toddlers; they live to get a rise out of Mom or Dad. "Bathroom humor is a way children test the boundaries of social acceptability," says Franzini. "The trick for parents is to set appropriate limits without making too much of a big deal out of these situations."

So if your child tries a stunt like pulling down his pants in the supermarket or yells "Poop!" in public at every opportunity, Jay suggests the following strategy: "Simply say, 'We don't use toilet humor here,' or 'Yes, that was funny, but once is enough,' then try to divert your child's attention."

There's good reason for the whole family to laugh it up. Studies show that laughter lowers blood pressure, improves circulation, and strengthens the immune system.

A key to fostering a good sense of humor in our children is to be a good role model. Poke fun at yourself when you spill milk and send the message that it's okay to make mistakes. Encourage your child to share funny observations, and make it a priority to do something silly together every day, suggests Franzini.

Simple things such as making a sandwich talk or putting a baseball hat on the dog reinforces the idea that humor makes life a lot more enjoyable. An added bonus: It fosters creative thinking. "Part of the power of humor is that it cultivates the habit of looking at things from an unusual angle," says McGhee. As a result, your child will be better prepared to solve problems and see other people's particular points of view -- invaluable skills that will serve him well in the future.

So encourage your little one to bust out his best duck waddle or turn your Tupperware into a top hat. By creating time and space where our kids are free to be silly, we allow them to be the funny little people that they are naturally.

Here are some great ways to get the giggles together.

Newborn to Age 1

  • Play "This Little Piggy" with gentle tickling.
  • Say "Uh-oh!" with a silly voice and face whenever your baby deliberately drops something.
  • Play peekaboo and change your facial expression every time you reveal yourself.

Ages 1 to 2

  • Play "chase/kiss": Crawl after baby ("I'm gonna get you!") and reward the capture with snuggles.
  • Make funny faces and encourage your child to imitate you.
  • Sing and speak in rhyme.

Ages 2 to 4

  • Break out your old camp songs with their silly choruses.
  • Play dress up: Encourage your child to put on your clothes and pretend to put on his.
  • Have fun with food: Make a smiley face with Cheerios in your child's oatmeal.

Emily Perlman Abedon, a mother of four, is a writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, October 2004.