Interestingly, humor is a quality that your child learns by responding to your feedback; it is not genetic. What your child finds funny partly depends on learning and his stage of development. The sense that something is out of place or different from what is expected is the common thread in most humor. For example, the surprise and suspense of playing peekaboo or putting a sock on your head tend to make your baby laugh. In order for him to find something funny and to react accordingly, he must reach a developmental stage at which he knows the norm and recognizes that something differs from it.
Stages of Humor Development
Birth-6 weeks—His startles or twitches are reflexes in response to changes in his body. His smile is reflexive, not emotional or social.
6-8 weeks—He now has a responsive smile; that is, he is responding to pleasurable internal sensory experiences. He is not yet smiling as a social response to you.
2-6 months—He displays a social smile. With this smile, he is trying to connect. He is responding to your expressions and repeated actions through imitation. His smile may be accompanied by sounds.
6-9 months—At this stage, he is developing object permanence and stranger anxiety, so he is less likely to smile at someone he does not know. He enjoys playing peekaboo.
9-12 months—He is starting to develop a sense of humor based on things that seem out of place, and he laughs in addition to smiling. He reacts to you and wants to get a reaction from you. Surprises, funny faces, and silly expressions make him laugh.
1-2 years—He starts to find delight in being silly and mischievous. He begins to respond with humor to funny songs and movements, exaggeration, improper use of objects, and behavior that he knows is inappropriate.
2-3 years—His sent of humor is developing around labeling objects and events that are inconsistent with the norm. For example, he finds it funny when you point to your nose and call it your eye. As his language and cognitive abilities develop, he can recognize conceptual incongruity—for example, a dog that says, “Meow.”
3 years+—As his language abilities, cognitive abilities, and social skills develop, his preferred humor may change from nonsense word, riddles, and wordplay to slapstick comedy and practical jokes.
Your baby’s first smiles are reactions to internal sensations rather than responses to humor. As he grows and learns, he may find different kinds of unexpected experiences funny.
Humor is a form of play, and play is how children learn. Imitation, eye contact, smiles, and laughter are key communication tools that help with language development.
Your baby’s cognitive development is interrelated with his sense of humor. Humor is a form of play, and play is how children learn. Imitation, eye contact, smiles, and laughter are key communication tools that help with language development. In part, his vocabulary level and set of life experiences determine his ability to know what to expect in a joke or a funny situation. A good sense of humor can make your child smarter, healthier, and better able to cope with challenges.
When Emi was a toddler and in a bad mood, I used to look at her and lightheartedly say, “Wipe that frown off your face.” She would take her hand, smear it across her face, and look back at me with a bright smile. I appreciated her ability to move her emotions from negative to positive with a swipe of her hand.
In addition to being lighthearted and fun on the surface, humor has many deeper benefits at the social, emotional, and cognitive levels. Humor offers a way to connect, to bond, and to share positive emotions with other people, thus facilitating healthy, happy relationships. Babies tend to laugh more with people they know and feel comfortable with. Jokes and laughter can reduce anxiety, relieve stress, and boost your child’s mood.
Overall, laughter is a tool that your child can rely on throughout life to help him do the following:
- See things from many perspectives in addition to the most obvious one
- Be spontaneous
- Grasp unconventional ideas or ways of thinking
- See below the surface of things
- Enjoy and participate in the playful aspects of life
- Avoid taking himself too seriously
It is never too early to start developing your child’s sense of humor. Most people naturally smile and laugh with babies. However, it is helpful to keep laughing and smiling with your toddler as he goes through different stages of development. Pay attention to aspects of his personality that influence his unique sense of humor. Be spontaneous, playful, and take time as a family to have fun and to be silly with each other.