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Driven to Discover

Early Report, Fall 1990

Humor and Children

Humor is No Laughing Matter

By Kathy Kolb, Editor

What's so funny??

This issue of Early Report takes a serious look at a seemingly frivolous topic: Humor and Children. Although most of us would rather laugh than cry, humor is rarely thought of as a legitimate subject for scientific study. Paul McGhee, a humor researcher for many years, quotes Rodney Dangerfield when he says "humor research never got any respect." Being committed to a better understanding of humor, he feels there has always been an awareness that humor is somehow viewed as different from other research topics. People tend to think humor researchers must be constantly telling jokes, anecdotes, witticisms, or otherwise being funny. Obviously, some do and some do not.

Humor research has been gaining respect. McGhee reports a tremendous surge of scholarly research reports and conferences about humor in the past 15 years.

This newsletter gives a selective view of the information available on humor and young children. As an introduction, I offer the following observations. (For a more detailed discussion, see Humor Development in Children by Alice Honig in Young Children, May 1988.)

Humor is difficult to define. There is disagreement over what level of intellectual functioning humor requires. If an infant laughs at a silly face made by its father, does that infant find the face funny? If a three year old laughs gleefully at some nonsense word she has created, is that humor? Many researchers agree that humor requires fairly sophisticated thinking processes, but many also agree that there is a playful component to humor that is present throughout life.

Another component of humor that is agreed upon is that it involves incongruities. Incongruity refers to juxtaposing two elements that do not normally go together. In simple forms of humor, for example, a preschooler would laugh at the idea of a cow in a bathtub because he wouldn't expect to see such a thing. He would be surprised, which is another element of humor.

There is also speculation that humor can serve to reduce anxiety in frightening or embarrassing situations. In fact, Freud was the first to theorize that laughter serves as a safety valve to relieve excess energy.

Changes in humor are probably related to changes in cognitive and language abilities. As children age, they go through distinct changes in their ability to understand the world. "Stages" of humor development are likened to "stages" of cognitive growth. For example, when an infant becomes capable of symbolic thought, she can make a joke out of pretending a block is a piece of food; and not until a child has achieved Piaget's level of concrete operations will he be able to understand that words can have two meanings and how this relates to more complex jokes (e.g., How do you get down off an elephant? You don't, you get down off a duck!).

Similarly, mastery of the rules of language are necessary to understand certain joke forms. For example, children must correctly pronounce the sound "th" in order to laugh at "I tought I taw a putty tat," and toddlers must be familiar with conventional sentence structure before they find "cake the eat" funnier than "eat the cake."

What children think is funny is unique to their age or developmental stage. While this seems obvious, understanding the stages can help adults facilitate children's humor development. It can help us recognize humor in children of all ages and guide us in providing humorous situations appropriate to a child's age.

It is important to appreciate children's particular brand of humor and join in their laughter.

Humor and Early Childhood Education

By Terri Smith Center for Early Education and Development 

Laughter is a common sound in early childhood classrooms and places where young children congregate. Research suggests that humorous episodes enjoyed or created by children are not simply a source of entertainment but are also a means of cognitive stimulation. The origins and development of humor depend on the development of general thought processes.

The role that humor plays in the process of development is receiving increased research attention, and is of special interest to early childhood educators. The following four areas will illustrate humor's importance.

Humor as a Motivating Factor

Humor influences children's choices. When young children can choose between humorous and nonhumorous materials, they often choose what is funny. For example, researchers found that humor is a factor in children's selection of TV programs. Producers of educational shows such as Sesame Street and the Electric Company use humor to facilitate learning. Researchers suggest that the interspersion of humor in TV programs increased children's attention span and intellectual curiosity.

Humor also was found to influence children's storybook preferences. One explanation offered is the element of surprise. In both humorous television programs and literature, children are presented with novel "misexpected" situations (events that violate expectancies), which is thought to generate greater curiosity. The appealing nature of humor might also be explained in light of the fact that young children have a lower threshold for humor and tend to be play-oriented--that is, they are more often in a playful frame of mind than older children and adults. Humor, as a form of play, provides children opportunities for playful manipulation of the real world.

When sharing humor with children, adults try to test children's understanding of humor. But asking children to be objective about humorous episodes may alter their enjoyment of it. Children easily respond to, "What's so funny?," but young children can't explain why something is funny. Interpreting humor is difficult because of children's limited language abilities and analytical skills. Asking a child to analyze humor may decrease his interest by creating a less "playful" atmosphere.

2. Humor and Spontaneous Play

The capacity for play (humor is considered a form of play) develops naturally; it is not "taught." Adults can encourage humor by creating a nonthreatening environment that supports play. If they create an atmosphere conducive to experimentation and discovery, children will encounter "funny" situations.

During the course of "playing" (e.g., make-believe play), children create situations they know are not "real." A similar situations occurs when children create humorous "incongruities." Objects, images, or words are deliberately distorted, e.g., creating nonsense words. Once children have mastered the underlying concepts and rules, they are then able to understand the impossibility or absurdity of the comic incongruity.

Children create commit situations during dramatic play, painting session, or puppet shows. Misexpected, incongruous situations are encountered during ongoing classroom activities, such as storytelling or cooking sessions. Adults can provide further opportunities for children to encounter incongruous situations by structuring activities that deliberately introduce unexpected events. For example, young children who are given cornstarch in place of flour to mix with water are intrigued by a whole new consistency. In another experiment, given various sizes of wires with which to blow bubbles, children are quite surprised and delighted with the results.

Role of Humor in the Learning Process

This material was adapted from Klein, Amelia J. (1987). Children's Humor: A Cognitive-Developmental Perspective. In L. Katz (Ed.), Current Topics in Early Childhood Education, Vol. VII.

  1. Humor is a form of play and is a natural medium through which young children can expand their understanding of the world.
  2. Humor is highly pleasurable and is associated with cognitive mastery.
  3. Humor provides children with problems to solve. In a joke, riddle, funny story, or cartoon, children must resolve incongruity in order to establish the joke.
  4. Humor promotes divergent thinking, a characteristic of creativity; in order to establish a joking relationship, the child must discover or create unique associations among ideas.
  5. Humor provides the child with an opportunity to learn rules. Humor has a basic structure that children discover when "playing jokes" on others (humor based on the element of surprise) or telling riddles (a punch line logically related to the body of the joke).

These guidelines are easily applied to classroom activities.

Teachers may provide a variety of humorous storybooks, including traditional story structures as well as poetry. In order to introduce young children to more structured forms of humor, teachers might present simple books of jokes, riddles, and cartoons. Although younger children will not master these formats until age 7 or 8, they become interested in jokes and riddles because older brothers, sisters, or friends are interested in them. Exposing children to more advanced forms of humor allows them to learn about the structure and rules for humor (e.g., a joke has a body and a punch line and both are logically related within the context of a joke).

Types of Humor Appropriate for Young Children

Children show preferences for humor that reflects their developmental levels. For example, an interest in riddles appears between ages 6 and 8. It is then that operational thought processes are acquired allowing children to reverse ideas mentally. Pre-operational children (i.e., preschoolers) would not enjoy or understand riddles. Similarly, jokes containing double meanings (puns) or implied meanings (based on illogical behavior) would not be understood by young children.

Research has shown that young children enjoy concrete humor, thus much of the humor in children's TV programs is physical. However, sophisticated humor also appear on children's programs, perhaps to appeal to a wider audience, including adults. These forms may be too complex to be understood by young viewers.

Children's literature also contains a wide range of humor. Books that emphasize complex forms of linguistic ambiguity or illogical behavior are more appropriate for children who care at the concrete-operational level of development (6- to 8-year olds). For example, "Amelia Bedelia" by Peggy Parish is a story about a girl who takes things literally when she reads a recipe book and is told to "dress a turkey." Young children may laugh at the sight of a turkey wearing a dress but are not likely to understand the character's inability to consider several interpretations of the term "dress." In "The Man Who Didn't Wash His Dishes" by Phyllis Krasilovsky, a gentleman creates problems by refusing to wash his dishes. The man substitutes other available kitchen utensils, such as flowerpots and ashtrays, until he eventually exhausts his household supplies. He solves his dilemma by taking all his "dirty dishes" outside on a rainy day and resolves never to postpone his daily chores again. Preschoolers may laugh at this story but usually do not appreciate the man's eccentric behavior or take his actions seriously.

Books depicting physical incongruities are more appealing to preschoolers. In the story "Where Can An Elephant Hide?" by David McPhail, an elephant tries to avoid being detected by two approaching hunters by imitating the behavior of various jungle animals-a tiger, monkey, and baboon-then by covering itself with parrot feathers. This story, not surprisingly, was a favorite choice of young children in a national survey conducted by the International Reading Association.

Adults who select or create humorous materials for children can play an important role by selecting humor that is developmentally appropriate. By assessing the developmental level of children and the cognitive context of humorous materials, adults can develop guidelines for the selection of books, television programs, etc. Adults can judge the appropriateness of humor stimuli by children's responses; children, like adults, appreciate what they understand. Although laughter is the same for all ages, the underlying thought processes are qualitatively different.

Humor and Children's Development: A Book Review

The remainder of this newsletter brings to your attention a noteworthy book: Humor and Children's Development: A Guide to Practical Applications. The 1989 book is edited by Paul McGhee, Ph.D., a longtime champion of the scientific study of humor in children, and published by The Haworth Press. Chapters address age differences in children's humor, using humor to promote learning and creativity, humor as a coping strategy, the use of humor in medical settings and in therapy with children, and humor in the media. Following are summaries of three of the chapters.

Pediatric Dentist's Use of Humor*

Thoughts of visiting the dentist can put fear in the hearts of men and women, and can be especially stressful for children. Several psychologists have suggested that dentists use a behavioral modification technique known as systematic desensitization with their young anxious patients. The idea behind systematic desensitization is to pair the anxiety provoking stimulus with a response that is incompatible with feeling anxious (usually muscle relaxation) so that the patient can learn to relax and experience less fear.

Researchers have attempted to use various types of responses which are incompatible with anxiety in the desensitization technique. Such studies have shown that humor can be substituted for muscle relaxation. According to Nevo and Shapira, incongruities are produced through exaggeration, absurdities, and puns which transform anxiety producing stimuli into humorous stimuli. The authors suggest that this technique be adapted for use with anxious children in the dental office.

In a study on pediatric dentists' use of humor, Nevo and Shapira asked ten pediatric dentists to describe a typical dentist appointment in their office. The dentists were asked to recall exact conversations with their patients and were queried about their use of humor in the appointment situation. Although these dentists were not aware that they used humor systematically, observations of three of these dentists showed that humor was used frequently with their patients.

Nevo and Shapira explain that children arriving at the dentist office are put into a "humor set" through the supply of games, toys, and books in the waiting room and by the humorous remarks made by the dentist before the appointment begins. Dentists provide cues to the patient that the situation is nonthreatening and may even be fun. Dentists reported that they use the "Tell, Show and Do" technique: first the child is told what will happen, then the dentist shows the child the equipment that will be used, and, finally, the procedure is performed. This technique gradually "desensitizes" the child to the anxiety provoking stimuli.

The authors found that dentists use a special humorous language for procedures used in the dental office. For example, a dentist, when asking a child to open his mouth might say "Let's see if you still have teeth (or a tongue)" or "We have to use light because your mouth doesn't have windows." When showing a child the equipment, the dentist may explain that she will be using a "vacuum cleaner" to clean out the child's mouth (referring to a suction device) or a "bulldozer" (meaning a drill). Some dentist use rhymes and fantasy with 3 to 6 year-olds knowing that the child of this age is willing to make believe the chair is an airplane. They find it helpful to use riddles and exaggerations to relax older children.

Dentists talked about humor as having several functions: to divert attention, to reduce anxiety of the child and/or parent, to create and maintain rapport, to transmit information in an enjoyable way, and to increase interest and involvement of the child and dentist.

Nevo and Shapira conclude their discussion of using humor as an intervention technique with the suggestion that humor may also lead to a decrease in the high rate of professional burnout in the dental profession because humor promotes more comfortable relationships between the dentist and the patient.

This chapter, while interesting, raises a few questions. Although the authors discuss the use of humor-based systematic desensitization with young fearful dental patients, they fail to mention if any formal study has been done to evaluate this procedure. The study that was reported by Nevo and Shapira was done with a very small sample (ten dentists were interviewed and only three were observed). Although it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from such a small sample, it gives impetus for further research.

*This article reviews Chapter 8, The Use of Humor by Pediatric Dentists, by Ofra Nevo and Joseph Shapira.

Children's Literature and Humor

By LaVonne Carlson, Head Teacher, Shirley G. Moore Laboratory Nursery School

Humor in Children's Literature, by Janice M. Alberghene, (Chapter 11) traces humor through children's literature and examines assumptions which have shaped the research to date.

Analysis of studies done by professionals in the field of children's literature reveals that although the researchers' interests are diverse, they agree that humor is difficult to define. The best research views the child as an active reader and values the use of humor in literature for children.

There are very few controversies to consider in looking at the history of humor in children's literature, since the history itself is so brief. Prior to the middle of the eighteenth century, literature for children, as we know it today, was virtually nonexistent. Though Mother Goose rhymes and humorous folk tales existed prior to this time, they originated in the oral tradition and did not distinguish books for children from books for adults. Books for children existed for the purpose of instruction, most often in piety and morality.

In 1744, John Newbery produced A Pretty Little Pocket Book, one of the first children's books meant to be read purely for pleasure, and thus ushered in a new era of children's reading. In the nineteenth century children's books became more overtly entertaining and humorous books were written specifically for children. While many of these books were well received, others such as Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were pronounced unsuitable. The key to acceptable humor at the time appeared to lie in not offending genteel sensibilities.

In the twentieth century the history of humor has not been very well documented, partly because of the volume of children's books that have been published. Research generally focused on a single author or handful of books, or on the nature of children's responses to humor, without in-depth consideration of the specific books which elicit these responses. This research has not led to consensus, but rather has raised a number of issues.

A careful analysis of the research reveals the presence of largely unexamined assumptions about the nature of children and humor. For example, James Smith says "our adult thinking about humor in children's literature is generally very sloppy and vague." Some hold the view that life is serious business, therefore humor is either inappropriate, sinful, or a waste of time. This idea led to a basic mistrust of humor that is reflected in many perspectives.

It is also apparent from numerous critics of children's literature that humor is extraordinarily difficult to define. Attempts at definition generally take the form of hierarchical categories, and serve as a yardstick against which to measure the child's developing sense of humor. While variations exist, a typical scale places slapstick and forms of physical humor at the bottom, followed by nonsense, word play, wit, satire, and high comedy of human folly. These categories can measure, not only the child's developing sense of humor, but also levels of cognitive, emotional, and/or moral development.

Approaches to the study of the child's developing sense of humor vary. One view considers a child's literary competence and ability to appreciate various forms of humor, and advises offering many levels and types of humor to facilitate development. Another perspective points to the importance of how funny stories are told and recommends exposure to stories with a structure that leads children through the steps of a joke or humorous episode. Individuals believing subtle humor to be inappropriate for young children recommend humorous books which are both simple and obvious. Still others feel that children should be exposed to forms of subtle humor which vary in complexity as the child matures. They maintain that young children enjoy word play--the ways words sound, puns, and even repartee and allusion.

Opinions regarding specific uses of humor vary widely, ranging from emotional and psychological benefits to educational advantages. Humor and laughter help children deal with feelings of anger, curiosity, and inferiority--"books that help children laugh are the books that help them survive." The author suggests that humor in children's literature may be a pale substitute for the jokes children tell each other, and points out the need for definitive studies in this field of research.

Humor and Children's Social Development

By Kathy Kolb, Center for Early Education and Development

In Chapter 5, The Contribution of Humor to Children's Social Development, Paul McGhee writes about the link between the appropriate use of humor in social situations and general social competence. While research evidence about young children is scarce, there is evidence to support this relationship in college students and older adults. This causes one to wonder which came first, the humor or the competence. Regardless, it makes good sense to promote appreciation of humor and its appropriate use just in case it is a cause of, rather than an effect of, social competence.

Under the premise that humor does play an important role in the development of social skills, McGhee outlines four general functions of humor in social interaction. Briefly, they are:

Facilitation of Social Interaction

One benefit of humor is that it makes social interaction easier and more enjoyable. Research with all age groups shows that people who initiate humor more often show greater social participation or are judged by peers to be more sociable. The conscious use of humor more often shows greater social participation or are judged by peers to be more sociable. The conscious use of humor in this way is undoubtedly reserved for adolescents and adults, but it may be important to cultivate humor during childhood in order that it can be well-used later.

Popularity and Friendship

It makes intuitive sense that people who can make others laugh are popular and can easily make friends. Research with all age groups has found a positive relationship between those rated high on a "humor scale" and those most often picked as someone they would like to spend time with.

It is speculated that the use of humor is social situations may reflect an underlying ability to "read" social cues. This would allow a person to understand a situation and make good guesses about what strategies to use at what times. Appropriate use of humor would be among the strategies to be chosen.

Another benefit of humor and laughter is a strong sense of "sharing the social situation." The reader has likely experienced this in many settings--among family, friends, or a group of children. Not only does this set the stage for friendships, but it may contribute to the deepening of relationships as a light-hearted way of sharing intimate feelings, fears or anxieties.

Socially Acceptable Expression of Aggression

Humor is inherently ambiguous, thus can be used to say exactly what we mean--or the opposite. In this way, McGhee suggests, humor can be used to express hostility: if a hostile remark backfires, we can take it back by saying it was "just a joke." Converging evidence suggests that around age 6 or 7, when significant cognitive and social-cognitive skills emerge, children can begin to use humor in this way. This is also when children become capable of understanding double meanings in jokes.

McGhee also notes that children with high fantasy skills have been found to express their aggression through fantasy rather than overt behavior. He suggests a relationship between fantasy and humor, and that children might be "trained" to use fantasy and humor to express their aggression. He does caution, however, that no systematic studies of such an approach exist.

Softening an Assertive/Dominating Style of Interaction

Studies have shown that both teachers and peers of children and adolescents are more likely to view frequent initiators of humor as leaders. Whether due to humor-users' increased "likability" or suave use of aggression and assertiveness, humor allows people to control social situations. McGhee suggests that children who prefer to dominate social situations learn that humor is an acceptable way of retaining control without triggering negative reactions.

In sum, mastery of humor in social situations is related to social competence. On the negative side, however, it is noted that humor is also related, especially in elementary years, to disruptive behaviors--a "class clown" who can interfere with a teacher's goals. Of course, this can be seen positively by peers, and good users of humor tend to develop into leaders by adolescence.

And On the Lighter Side...

Since children are our favorite topic and since they are so funny, we couldn't let the opportunity go by to address the topic of humor without taking a humorous approach. Here, then, is a sample of children's jokes and stories about children's unique perspectives on life.

Q: Why didn't the skeleton cross the road?
A: No guts!!

Teacher, observing Louis' red, runny nose: "My Louis, it looks to me like you have a cold." Louis, bragging: "I have two colds and my nose is melting!"

At a narrow spot on a nearby lake is a ferry that can carry 8 or 10 cars. Sara had been with her family one weekend and told us she'd been on it. When asked "What is a ferry?" she answered after a moment's thought, "It was like a bridge and it came over and got us."

Q: What do you get when you cross an elephant with peanut butter?
A: Elephants that stick to the roof of your mouth!

What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence? Time to get a new fence!

In the supermarket, the cart a young man was pushing contained a screaming, yelling, bellowing baby. The young man kept repeating softly, "Don't scream, Tommy; don't yell, Tommy: keep calm, Tommy." A woman standing next to him said, "You are to be commended for trying to soothe little Tommy." "Lady," the young man replied wearily, "I'm Tommy."

Knock, knock. Who's there? Lettuce. Lettuce who? Lettuce out, it's cold in here.

Eight-year-old Mary: "Know why Miss Tomato turned red?" "'Cause she saw Mr. Green Pea!"

Comment overheard at the sandbox, after much emphasis on sharing: "I want you to share. NOW GIVE IT TO ME!!!"

Did you hear the joke about the bed? I didn't make it up yet!!!

Reprint Guidelines

The information contained in Early Report may be reproduced without charge for education/training or related activities. There is no requirement to obtain special permission for such uses. We do, however, ask that the citation below appear on all reproductions:

Reprinted with permission of the Center for Early Education and Development (CEED), College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota, 1954 Buford Avenue, Suite 425, St. Paul, MN, 55108; phone: 612-625-2898; fax: 612-625-2093;


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