Joking around with kids isn’t just fun, it’s vital

Ever since our granddaughter Lucia was born five years ago, I’ve clowned around with her. My repertoire has spanned the spectrum from playing peek-a-boo, arching my eyebrows and wiggling my ears to pretending to walk into doors and scatting like Ella Fitzgerald.

As much as this is fun for me and for her, it’s also developmentally healthy for Lucia when the adults in her life get silly. “I place a high value on humor between a parent and a child,” says Lawrence Balter, professor emeritus of applied psychology at New York University and author of several books about parenting. “It’s almost always good — and important — for both. For starters, kids like to know you even have a sense of humor.”

Experts generally agree that kids exposed to humor at home are more likely to laugh at themselves, avoid taking life too seriously and may make friends more easily. Keeping it light in your household can maintain robust mental health in your child, easing anxieties and establishing a sense of security and boosting self-esteem.

Admittedly, it’s not always easy to remember to add some humor into your day when you’re balancing family, work and myriad other duties. But it’s important.

“Humor is one of those functions that can really promote positive emotions between a parent and child,” says Shannon Bennett, assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Just because parenting is a serious business is no reason to be serious about it all the time. Taking time for a moment of levity with your child during your daily routine means you’re making it a priority. You’re saying, ‘We enjoy you. You’re important. You’re loved.’”

Any play that takes the form of humor can deliver advantages that range from educational and disciplinary to social, therapeutic and familial. Humor can expand cognitive capacity and enhance the critical thinking skills essential to solving problems, thereby promoting learning, creativity and intelligence. As any teacher can attest, children may better retain facts and concepts taught through jokes, puns or rhymes.

Humor can be therapeutic for children, too, psychologists say. Joking around can build resilience against adversity, warding off sadness and disappointment. Parents also reap rewards, defusing the stresses and anxieties that always accompany bringing up children. In the process, humor can be instrumental — especially after the third tantrum of the morning — in saving what’s left of your sanity.

“Parents can take parenting too seriously,” says Gary Ross Maslow, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. “Just five minutes of horsing around can be meaningful enough to make a big difference to a child.”

In truth, children will likely relate better to a parent who appreciates the value in a dose of humor, says Bennett of Weil Cornell Medicine. Going for the occasional laugh sets an example and sends a message — let’s cut ourselves a little slack here! — that instills your kids with trust and confidence in you. They can sense the difference in attitude, and it may forge a connection that lasts a lifetime. Once you’ve laughed together, chances are higher that you can do pretty much anything together.

“Kids are drawn to people who can be funny,” she says. “So many of our days as parents can be bogged down with just getting from task A to task B. Laughing can be cathartic and release dopamine and other feel-good chemicals in the brain. The key is the shared experience of joy. Making room for fun can help your children become the people they were meant to be.”

Our granddaughter Lucia turns out to be a perfect audience for me. She giggles a lot. “Silly Nonno,” she often says in response to my shenanigans. Making her laugh brings me a joy beyond any other.

But she also picks up on my cues and reciprocates in kind — humoring me, if you will — with her own slapstick. One minute she’s singing a nonsense song she invented on the spot, the next she’s shimmying and flinging around the word “poopie” with impunity. She probably now makes me laugh more than I do her.

Children are receptive to humor at very young ages, studies show. Researchers at the University of Bristol conducted a survey, published in 2021, for the parents of 671 children between birth and 47 months old that looked at when humor develops, and also the different kinds. They found that about half of the babies demonstrated an appreciation for humor by just 2 months. By 11 months, they exhibited an interest in physical comedy such as games of peek-a-boo, making funny faces and chasing and being chased.

From then the sense of humor quickly grows finely tuned. Babies past the 1-year mark responded favorably to antics such as teasing, toilet humor, startling someone, or imitating animal sounds and making other silly noises. At age 2, toddlers graduated to liking verbal jokes about absurdities, such as saying “my dog says ‘moo.’” Three-year-olds went in for more advanced physical gags and could come up with puns, simple riddles and, yes, curse words.

Beware practicing the kind of humor that hurts more than helps your child, though.

“You need to introduce humor that’s at the right level for a child,” says Balter of NYU. “It’s always unsuitable to poke fun, tease, be sarcastic or have any kind of hostile or nasty edge. Very young kids in particular might be confused and hurt by it.”

So calibrate your comedy accordingly. You’ll know if your approach is on the right track because laughs never lie. “Interactions with your child that are filled with mirth should be unscripted and spontaneous,” says Dipesh Navsaria, associate professor of pediatrics and human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “They should involve a back-and-forth where parent and child are ‘riffing off’ each other.”

Recently, Lucia and I had a free-for-all pillow fight. I pretended to be her hapless victim, toppling over with theatrical aplomb. She laughed hysterically at the sorry spectacle of her 71-year-old nonno sprawled across the sheets. That moment is magic. She gets me and I get her. We’ve connected.

“Attune yourself to the kind of humor your child likes,” says Maslow of Duke University. “Your child will receive the message, ‘Hey, you really know me.’ It will be clear that you just want to be silly, without any agenda. Take advantage of any opportunities. You never want to miss these moments.”