A Sense of Humor

There is no doubt that one important quality of parenting (and of maintaining one's sanity while parenting!) is a sense of humor. It can smooth the bumps, soothe the feelings and lighten the heaviest of loads. Humor, used properly, can teach your children to approach life in a positive manner by encouraging a second look at circumstances which may at first seem overwhelming or unbearable. However, humor can also be a sharp sword which cuts deeply into the self-esteem of your child and as such should be used with thoughtfulness and caution.

There is often a difference in what children and adults find funny. Adults, for example, are prone to using sarcasm as a way to get laughs from peers, coworkers and others. However, sarcasm is the type of humor that should be the most studiously avoided when dealing with children. To understand more fully the difference between humor and sarcasm, a look at their dictionary definitions is appropriate.

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines humor as "that quality that appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous". Sarcasm, on the other hand, is defined as "a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain; a mode of ... wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual". (Italics mine)

When you're thinking about the type of humor you're using with your children, ask yourself the following questions. If you answer "yes" to one or more of them, then your "joke" with your child is sarcastic in nature, and ultimately may prove damaging to your child's developing psyche.

* Does the joke belittle or demean your child's intelligence? (i.e. "Well if you'd sleep with your brains in instead of leaving them in your nightstand every night maybe then you'd remember to pack your homework.")

* Does it poke fun at your child's personality or physical traits? (i.e. "I swear, you're as pesky as a mosquito * I thought I had a daughter, not an insect living here!")

* Do the words you're using undermine your child's capabilities, or indicate that you lack confidence in him or her? (i.e. "And I suppose it's going to kill you to sit next to your sister this time.")

* Are you making fun of your child's feelings? (i.e. "Hey, cry a little harder and I won't have to run you a bath tonight, we can fill up the tub with those tears.")

* Are you attempting to get adults to laugh at the expense of your child? (i.e. Dad and son are on a picnic with other families. Son asks Dad, "Dad, can I have an ice cream?" Dad says, "Sure" then makes no attempt to give child money. Son looks awkward and says, "Um, can I have some money?" Dad says, "Oh, you want money do you? I thought you wanted ice cream. I suppose I'm Mister Money-bags, huh?" Adults laugh.)

It's important to understand that even if your child joins in the laughter or pokes sarcastic fun back at you, this is not an indication that your child "gets it" or is not being damaged by it. Children often join in the laughter to avoid their true feelings of embarrassment. And your child may be sarcastic back in an effort to defend him or herself. Regardless of your child's reaction, sarcasm is damaging, and does not teach children to laugh at themselves nor does it ultimately lighten the situation, except at the child's expense.

This having been said, however, let's take a look at some examples of how humor can be used in a family without damaging the child.

Three year old Susie was furious at her mother because she wasn't being allowed to have candy before dinner. Tears and hysteria ensued. Mom was patient and kind, reflecting Susie's feelings, sitting with her and offering comfort at the same time that she was enforcing the limit of no candy. Susie's flood of emotion finally required the use of a Kleenex, which Mom provided. After blowing her nose, Susie handed the Kleenex to Mom, who paused briefly, holding the Kleenex in her hand, and then said, "Uh, thanks. It's just what I've always wanted." Susie burst into laughter.

This scenario is different from the examples of sarcasm. Here, Mom is appealing to the sense of ludicrousness * someone hands you something and sometimes it's a gift. Clearly a dirty Kleenex is not a gift, hence Mom thanking Susie for it appealed to Susie's sense of humor and provided a way to break the tension of the moment.

In addition to appealing to a child's sense of incongruity (and this sense develops and becomes more sophisticated as your child matures) it's generally "safe" to take a child's lead in humor. Look how Dad uses his son's sense of humor in the following scenario as a springboard for a joke:

Seven year old Tommy comes into the dining room in the morning before school, holding a pair of pants up in front of him. He greets Dad, saying "Hi Dad! I'm ready for school!" Dad, seeing that Tommy is not dressed, says in a suspicious tone of voice, "Wait a second, turn around." Tommy turns, grinning, to reveal his underwear. Dad says "Hey, nice job getting dressed Tom! Be sure to get a second pair of pants for your backside!" Tommy and Dad laugh.

This type of humor, where you "buy in" to your child's joke is also beneficial. It teaches your child that you can have fun, that you aren't always serious, and that you appreciate your child's sense of humor. Sometimes, adults have difficulty with this because we often don't find the same things to be funny that children do. (Bathroom humor is a good example of something children find funny at certain ages, but which doesn't tickle the adult funny bone!) However, just because you aren't at the same developmental level as your child doesn't mean you can't appreciate his laughter and his good spirits.

As a final point, remember that if you do slip and say something sarcastic (humor at your child's expense) use it as a learning experience. Recognize that it was sarcastic and work on refraining from that type of humor in the future, and be sure to apologize to your child for your remark.