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What's So Funny?

While visiting a friend a few years ago, my daughter, Samantha, then 1, burst into a deep belly laugh. Sure, she’d cracked up before, but this time was different. No one was making faces at her or tickling her. No one was even laughing. Instead, what sent her into a fit of giggles was watching my friend’s dog jump up and down over and over again.

Though not quite as hilarious as the one-liners on Friends, a jumping dog was an unusual sight for Samantha -- and therefore worthy of a hearty chuckle. At about age 1, after months of mimicking the smiles and laughter of those around them, toddlers begin to reveal their own sense of humor. Their snickers mark an important developmental milestone and are a clear reflection of the smarts they’re acquiring.

“Sense of humor is directly linked to a child’s cognitive development,” says Kori Skidmore, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. Humor develops as your toddler’s memory improves and she comes to understand (and recall) that the world operates in a certain way, with predictable order, structure, and patterns. When something nonthreatening happens that doesn’t fit those expectations -- like when she tries wearing your shoes -- she’s now aware of the incongruity and may find the act hysterical.

Laughter Is Contagious

Most children inherit their funny bone from their parents, experts say. Moms and dads who have a good sense of humor generally produce kids who do too. But a child’s environment has a tremendous influence as well. Caregivers who frequently laugh or joke around serve as role models, providing ample opportunities for a toddler to mimic humor.

“Even a young child learns to recognize humor when he sees his parents interact with him in ways that make him giggle, or when they recognize his early attempts at being funny and laugh with him,” says Doris Bergen, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. Playful interactions teach your toddler to appreciate the lighter side of life and to see the incongruity in everyday situations. When he laughs, use words to describe the situation (“That’s a silly face!” or “Elmo’s dancing is funny!”), so your toddler learns to apply language to a humorous event. If you laugh easily and use a warm, trust-building tone in games like peekaboo, your child will enjoy humor too.

Nothing is too corny for a toddler, but here’s what typically makes 1-year-olds laugh.

  • The ridiculous. By now, your child has developed a routine and knows what to expect from her world. When you do something out of the ordinary (without frightening her), she may find it humorous, Dr. Skidmore says. Utterly inane acts, such as wearing your toddler’s pants on your head while changing her diaper (as my husband used to do), are likely to spark giggles. Those pants, she now knows, belong on her legs, not on your head.
  • The predictable surprise. Babies and toddlers spend many months mastering the idea of object permanence: the concept that things and people exist even when they’re out of sight. Games like peekaboo reinforce this notion of how the world works. Your child now knows that you’re hiding behind the chair, and when you confirm her suspicions by jumping out playfully, she’ll be delighted and express that feeling with laughter.
  • Incongruous humor. Your toddler may also gig-gle at things that should be a certain way but aren’t. “First comes visual incongruity -- if your child sees a picture of a dog wearing a fluffy hat, for example, she may laugh,” Dr. Bergen says. “The ability to spot this incongruity develops at age 11/2 or 2.” Later, your child will crack up at language incongruity (like when Daddy is called “Mommy”). And by preschool, when humor becomes more conceptual, she’ll laugh at the wordplay in a knock-knock joke, for instance.

Life's a Comedy

Nurturing your child’s emerging capacity for humor is like presenting him with a lifelong gift. Laughter is a mechanism for pleasure and a powerful tool for coping with life’s difficult moments, Dr. Skidmore points out. “While having a good sense of humor may not necessarily make kids smarter, it will enrich their lives.”

If your 1-year-old throws a tantrum at naptime, de-fuse the situation with humor: Nibble on her belly as you carry her to her crib, for instance. In your daily routines, teach her to embrace life’s silly side. Make kooky faces or slap a sticker on your nose to trigger giggles.