You Can Learn a Lot About a Kid From What They Laugh At
“I was born impatient. When the doctor pulled me out, I slapped him and demanded to know what took so long.”
This was my contribution for a class joke-telling competition when I was 10. My parents were mildly appalled until one of the judges turned around and congratulated them on such a bright daughter. It was possibly the second time they’d contemplated my intelligence seriously – the first being when a neighbour I’d sassed had warned, “You better watch this one – she’s too smart for her own good.”
While my parents might not have fully believed in the link between intelligence and humor in children (“Stop telling your brother he’s not as smart as he doesn’t look!”), ample research and studies prove that if your kid is being funny on purpose, they’re pretty smart.
A kid and his parents walk into a bar. The kid says, “ouch.”
When you break down the psychology of humor, a joke is funny because it contains incongruity – that is, ideas that are opposing, or don’t add up, or link in a weird way. Understanding or looking at incongruity is related to problem-solving, and studies have proved a link between humor comprehension and problem solving skills – both of which are governed by the right side of the brain.
Studies over the years have also linked verbal intelligence, general intelligence and abstract reasoning to the comprehension or production of humor.
More recent research, however, shows that different types of humor are also associated with higher intelligence – so it doesn’t matter if you’re ugly as long as you can joke about it, amirite?
Humor is about recognising patterns and analysing the similarities or dissimilarities in those patterns – to decide when something is funny. When you take that ability of recognition and push it further to creation – you’ve got a kid who’s smart enough to be funny.
If life gives you lemons, learn to juggle.
You’ve also got a kid who’s funny enough to be happy. At least, happier. Research also shows that humor in children isn’t just linked to a higher IQ. Some studies indicate that people who can interpret a situation in a humorous way can also cope better when life throws them a curveball – humor releases endorphins, the feel-good hormones that immediately change how your body and mind respond to difficult situations, and is suspected to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. So, if your kid starts to crack jokes when she knows you’re angry, she’s actually learning to react better to life.
Types of Humor
Still, humor in children shouldn’t always put a smile on your face. It’s possible to be funny and unhappy at the same time, and research also shows that a child’s humor can tip you off to negative feelings.
While humor is absolutely subjective, there are two broad types of humor: adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive humor can be self-enhancing or affiliative. The former boosts your sense of self, to make fun of your situation to feel better – without being detrimental to others. Affiliative humor reduces interpersonal stress and enhances relationships – think of joking with friends or using a witticism as an ice-breaker with someone you’ve just met.
Whether self-enhancing or affiliative, adaptive humor in children is seen as a marker of better mental health, self-esteem and social adjustment.
Maladaptive humor, however, is self-defeating or aggressive – both are at the expense of the subject of the joke, which could be the maker themselves or someone else. This kind of humor in children is potentially damaging and can alienate people as well as harm mental health.
Children using a consistent style of self-defeating humor, making fun of themselves in a broadly negative sense, were found to have less self-esteem and feel more lonely or depressed over the course of a school year. In a vicious cycle, these dips in confidence led to more self-defeating humor.
When kids varied their styles, though, and incorporated self-defeating amongst other, more positive styles, they fared much better.
Make ’em laugh.
You can, of course, foster a sense of positive humor in children, no matter what age. Cultivate a sense of playfulness when interacting with them. Make jokes, laugh at theirs, encourage them to be funny. When things go wrong, make a joke of it and teach them to take life with a pinch of laughter. Surround them with funny books, rhymes, comics and movies. Children learn by imitating, so when you consistently show them what you find funny, they will inculcate that too.
Remember that your child is an individual – with their own tastes and personality. They might grow up to use humor as a defense mechanism (a la Chandler Bing from Friends) or always find pranks funnier than wordplay. Recognise and respect their likes and dislikes, while gently dissuading them from off-colour jokes or potentially harmful pranks.