How to nurture your child’s funny bone

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Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Interrupting cow.

Interrupting cow w---

This was the first joke my child “got”. While it lacks sophisticated word play or a finely developed sense of irony, its element of genial surprise proved a winner with my toddler. She then learned how to tell it (her butchered telling of it proved even funnier than the original) and this simple process of learning just how to tell a joke taught her so much.

First of all, you can’t tell a joke without having a theory of mind. You can’t know what’s funny, what’s absurd, or what would be a surprise, without first having an idea of what your listener knows. You can’t tell a joke without having some basic knowledge of facts and of interpersonal dynamics either. That’s why humour has its place among the 16 habits of mind in this series.

And the science backs it up. Success in life depends heavily on how you connect with other people. The key to developing these interpersonal skills is a sense of humour – the ability to laugh something off, to laugh at yourself, and to find the ironic, absurd, whimsical or unexpected amusing. If you can do all that, it becomes easier to make a good impression on people, and it becomes easier to get people to like you.

For example, a Robert Half international survey shows that almost all executives polled believed that a sense of humour is “imperative for career advancement”. Research also shows that laughter helps you cope with stress, and that humour is often linked with intelligence and mating success. Additionally, a sense of humour is a great way for you to signal your maturity – knowing when to crack jokes and when to hold back, depending on the context, shows that you are capable of discerning the different levels of sensitivity required by various situations.

Developing a sense of humour isn’t just about telling jokes, though. Here’s how you can help your kid find her inner whimsy:

For toddlers and preschoolers
Try reading them funny books. My family loved Dr Seuss, especially the classic Green Eggs and Ham, as his books are packed with creative wordplay and funny rhymes.

Provide a safe space for absurdity and creativity. Create a “yes space” for your kids (a room where anything goes) and encourage them to go wherever their imagination takes them.

Model a sense of humour. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at your own mistakes. Show your kids that you aren’t perfect, and that’s okay (and it can even be funny).

For older children
Practise telling jokes and experiment with creating your own. Help them see what makes jokes funny and what doesn’t. This also provides good teaching moments for learning about the different situations in which certain types of humour are inappropriate (for example, no potty jokes at the table, no swearing in school, etc.)

It might get a little silly for awhile as your children learn about what makes them laugh, and what makes mummy and daddy smile. Roll with the weirdness as best you can, and remember that this is how your child is going to develop the creativity and interpersonal skills that will help them in the future.


This is part 14 of a 16-part series on Habits of Mind. Follow the series here.

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