This article originally appeared in the May 28, 2009 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Hey, did you hear about the pig with a rash? He needed a little oinkment.
While that joke might not bring down the house at the Funny Bone, it’s comedy gold for most young children. Around age 6 or 7, kids start to understand language well enough to know that words can have two (or more) meanings. As your child develops the ability to grasp different meanings, these riddles, jokes, and puns start making sense and will be a top source of enjoyment for the next few years.
Children this age delight in their newfound ability with an insatiable appetite for jokes of all stripes. Don't be surprised if it feels like you're living with Jay Leno, with every meal an opportunity for a monologue.
The ability to see and understand humor is increasingly important as children move into school. As early as preschool, those with a strong sense of humor are better liked by their peers, and have more friends, higher self-esteem, and a more positive outlook on life. They're better able to deal with their own quirks and are more tolerant of others. Perhaps most important, kids who can smile at their own mistakes are better equipped to handle teasing, bullies, and the adversities of childhood, both big and small.
For an adult, school-age humor can get a little tiresome. However, there's really no downside to a child's love of jokes, riddles, and puns. Playing with language introduces new words and meanings and builds vocabulary. Repeating the same jokes or riddles develops memory skills. And poring over joke books teaches the value and enjoyment to be found in reading. Finally, kids learn many creative life and problem-solving skills by studying jokes and making up their own.
“Parents should support and nurture their child’s developing sense of humor,” says Dr. Sue Heaney, a pediatrician who serves as Vice President of Medical Affairs at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “It’s also important for parents to have a sense of humor of their own, to deal with all the day-to-day things that go with having kids. Enjoy the laughter and fun of children.”
Beyond simply enjoying jokes together, parents should be good humor models for their children. Look for the humor in everyday situations. Laugh at yourself and deal lightly with irritations. Use humor as opposed to scolding; crack a joke to ease tension. You'll not only be giving your child the tools needed to handle difficult situations in the future, you'll find that you feel better too.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.