“Why did the sandwich get out of the bathtub?” my son once asked me when he was five years old.
“Ummm, I don’t know. Why?” I asked, more than curious where this was heading.
“Because it wanted a bottle of cheese!” he exclaimed.
That joke remains, to this day, my all-time favourite because in that moment, I realised he was solidly in the land of finding jokes funny but not quite yet understanding how to craft them.
Having a good sense of humour is one of the keys to a happy life. Humour is one way we connect with other people, it helps us bond and build relationships — and it enables us to not take ourselves (or each other) too seriously.
Kids will naturally develop a sense of humour as they age, but there are some things parents can do to influence and encourage their comedy along the way.
Meet them where they’re at
Much in the same way kids hit other developmental milestones, the development of a child’s sense of humour happens in phases as they age.
Babies can’t understand humour, per se, but they react to—and imitate — smiles and laughter. By the time they become toddlers, they can appreciate physical humour with an element of surprise, like peek-a-boo.
Amy Kraft and her colleagues at the children’s podcasting app Pinna have researched how kids engage with humour at different ages so they could target their comedy shows to the right age groups.
“At ages 3-4, the humour is very silly,” says Kraft, Pinna’s director of development and children’s programming. “That’s the age when kids are super literal, so when you’re doing something that’s wrong and they know it’s wrong in a silly way ... it’s a good moment for comedy.”
Joking that a pig says “moo”, for example, or walking around with a toy on your head and pretending there’s nothing weird about it — these are the things that will be hilarious to your preschooler.
By age 5 or 6, they start to understand humour at a higher level and begin attempting to craft their own jokes, Kraft says.
“They can start to understand things like irony and sarcasm but they can’t traffic in it yet,” she says. “My favourite thing is kids trying to tell jokes when they can’t yet tell jokes.”
As they work their way through elementary school, Kraft says joke-telling becomes an important way kids connect with each other.
“The way we interact with humour is social; it’s a transaction with other people,” she says. “Kids begin trying to get people to laugh and seeing what gets that laugh, much in the way a stand-up comic would work on their set.”
Encourage their humour
What kids find funny might not be all that funny to you (well-timed potty humour has its place in society, but it can get old). But Kraft says paying attention to the things that crack your kid up can be good for both of you.
“I’m a big fan of co-viewing and co-listening; if your kid is cracking up about something, sit down and crack up with them,” she says. “When comedy is shared, it shows you value it.”
Even if you don’t find it as funny as they do, you can often appreciate why they find it funny, and that’s good enough.
When kids start to become interested in jokes, you can encourage them with books, funny shows or comedy podcasts.
One new comedy show Pinna is launching today called “HiLL-LaRRy-uS” provides kids with a new joke each day, with the idea that they can listen to it in the morning and be armed with a new joke for their friends at recess.
If you’re looking for a good starter kid’s joke book, Knock, Knock! Who’s There by Tad Hills is a basic book for preschoolers with just 10 jokes for them to memorise.
An Offspring reader also once recommended Jay Leno’s How to Be the Funniest Kid in the Whole World, which is filled with knock-knock jokes, silly questions and mini-routines for kids.
And, when in doubt, you can always ask Alexa to “tell me a joke.”
“Kids kind of like to have a joke at the ready,” Kraft says. “That’s a great thing to encourage, and it’s such a social ice breaker.”
Be wary of sarcasm
It is painful for me to write this, as someone grew up in an incredibly sarcastic household, but be very careful about directing sarcasm at your kids.
Until they’re old enough to get the nuances of sarcasm, it often comes across as simply mean.
Kraft said that along with age, consider the setting when you use sarcasm with a child. Her own daughter once attended a parent-teacher conference in elementary school in which the teacher spoke sarcastically about the girl’s performance in school.
“Think about whether it’s the right time and what are the stakes for the kid,” she says. “Sarcasm only works if kids understand the underlying message.”
Similarly, don’t laugh at things that are mean-spirited or “jokes” that make fun of someone else. Kids will take cues from their parents about what is funny and belittling someone else should never be done for the sake of humour.
Create some “inside” jokes
Developing some longterm running jokes within your family can be a great bonding experience with your kids.
“You’re building on a foundation of shared understanding that’s comedic by sharing a special joke that you have together,” Kraft says.
It might be a funny line from a favourite movie said at just the right moment, a certain facial expression or some familiar banter. Find the things that make you all laugh and keep them alive.