How to keep all the kids' laughter good-natured

Children learn quickly about the power of jokes - even the mean ones

Family Matters

April 10, 2005|By Karen Guzman | Karen Guzman,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Lois Stephenson has seen her share of kids' high jinks. Raising four daughters and owning three day-care centers, there's scarcely a silly ditty or funny face she hasn't encountered. Goofs, gags and practical jokes just come naturally to kids.

And they don't need an excuse to cut loose.

"They're always giggling and laughing and enjoy playing jokes on each other," says Stephenson, owner of the Building Block Childcare and Development Centers in Clayton, N.C.

That's good. There's much to be gained by cultivating a sense of humor. Laughter is good for health. It can serve as a lifelong social lubricant, and it's a useful coping mechanism when times are tough.

For parents, though, the challenge is keeping the chuckling kind. For every jokester out there, there is - too often - a butt of jokes. And as a wise sage - and countless kindergarten teachers - once said: "A joke isn't funny unless everyone laughs."

So how can a parent help a young child develop a healthy, not mean-spirited, sense of humor?

Experts say it's easy. They advise that parents start by modeling appropriate humor and discouraging "victim" jokes when a child veers toward them.

"Like so many other things, children developing a sense of humor is so dependent on them modeling the parents' sense of humor," says Mark Rosenberg, a pediatrician at Children's Health Care Associates in Chicago.

In her day-care centers, Stephenson sees plenty of cases of humor that has started going bad. Teasing, especially when it's something seen at home, can start early.

When the tykes in Stephenson's classrooms go after each other, teachers cut it short and use the incident as a learning experience.

"We talk about it, just as we talk about all our feelings," Stephenson explains. "One of the most important things we teach in preschool for school readiness is how to get along with others."

During the crucial preschool and early elementary years, when a child is learning what is funny, parents can help guide humor - but only so much.

Kids learn quickly that jokes are a useful currency, something that can ingratiate them with adults and peers alike.

"Peers can be such a powerful force in kids' lives, and you can sometimes get a laugh from other kids by making fun of a peer," says Jennifer Lansford, a developmental psychologist at the Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy in Durham, N.C.

And it doesn't always stop with a laugh.

"It can go quite a bit beyond that, into bullying," Rosenberg says.

Peers are a formidable force, but adults can counteract a child's impulse toward cruel humor, even when it is peer-approved. How? Appeal to a child's better nature by talking about the emotions behind mean humor.

Point out the hurt the victim experiences. Capitalize, for instance, on a teasing scene in a movie or television show.

"Ask, `How would you feel if that happened to you?'" Lansford says. "Talk through the emotions that go with using humor to be hurtful."

Helping kids develop a healthy sense of humor is a worthwhile investment - especially in these stressful modern times. Laughter can help put disappointment and hurt into perspective.

"It's good for them not to take themselves too seriously," says Raleigh, N.C., mother Cathe Dixon.

Kids who are able to react to setbacks with humor learn an important emotional coping tool. And many will retain it throughout their lives.

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