Learning how to share a joke and find things funny is part of children's development and is learned from their whānau. Some whānau need a little support to find the lighter side and bring humour into daily life.

Humour: does it run in the family?

Most things young children learn come from being with their whānau, and a sense of humour is no different. Parents who joke and laugh with their tamariki will probably produce children who joke and laugh too. Parents who are clever with words, or can clown around, will be role models for their children.

On the flip side, parents who are grumpy, sad, anxious or depressed will likely struggle to model the lighter side of life to their children. These whānau might need some extra support to bring humour and laughter into their homes. Maybe amusing books, television programmes or internet clips could be a way to start and help cheer up both parents and kids. We bond with others through enjoying jokes and laughter together.

Humour forms part of the process of socialisation. You learn about it from the people around you and it’s part of the culture of your whānau. A sense of humour is learned, not inherited.

Finding things funny

Almost all humour involves an element of anticipation or surprise. We laugh when things surprise us, because they’re unexpected or different. For example, waiting for the punchline of a joke or for a jack-in-the-box to suddenly pop up is likely to produce a smile or a giggle.

Playing peek-a-boo can appeal to babies as young as 4 months old, and it’ll make them laugh, time and time again. By the time tamariki are 3 to 4-years-old, they will have moved on from the fun of peek-a-boo, but will still enjoy the anticipation aspect in a game of hide and seek, a surprise party or a treasure hunt.

During this stage, jokes about farting, poos, or wees will often be the cause for laughter as a fascination with ‘toilet talk’ is common. Tamariki have worked out that this is a topic that will likely get someone’s attention too, often from adults, but more especially their peers. What we do know is that the development of humour or what children find funny will differ with age and their level of cognitive, language and emotional development.

Do things together you enjoy is a favourite Tākai message. Finding activities that can be shared by parents and children or the whole whānau can be a real gift. The internet is full of clips of babies and toddlers being part of fun activities. Giggling babies, clownish toddlers, crazy kids and pets, little kids imitating adults, and adults imitating little kids can all be sources of amusement.

Strange things make us laugh

Along with this thread of surprise, humour also includes incongruity, which means something is strange or odd, out of place, in the wrong place or even missing altogether. Putting things where they don’t belong can be very funny to a 2-year-old, where by age 4 or 5 they may not see the humour in this type of silly joke.

A child’s intellectual and emotional maturity will influence how able they are to find something humorous. In fact, their ability to get the joke or make a joke can give us a clue as to their stage of development and the complexity of their ability to think and feel. So, they can show the level of development they’ve reached through their laughter and what they find funny.

Playing with language takes a certain sophistication and ability with language. As language develops, funny sayings, rhyming words and silly talking will give way to identifiable jokes. Having an audience or sharing that joke with someone else is an important part of developing humour.

Understanding what makes people laugh

You need imagination to first of all recognise incongruity and secondly to create a strange or bizarre situation. You also need to have developed a basic understanding about how other people think and react and what they might normally expect to happen.

Examples of this incongruity might be something like a boy wearing his shoes on his hands, a truck with square wheels or the wrong sounds being made by the wrong animal. We find it funny because it’s different and unexpected.

Developing humour is part of the socialisation process as a child learns what is considered normal in a certain environment or around particular people. Having a joke or a laugh with someone else is a healthy way to bond socially with others.

This article, What’s funny to a preschooler? | Johns Hopkins Medicine(external link), is about the importance of whānau having fun with their tamariki. It has some suggestions for how parents can encourage their child’s sense of humour.

This article, How children develop a sense of humour | The Conversation,(external link) examines the growth of humour in early childhood.

Lastly, this article by Lawrence Kutner called Humor as a key to child development | PsychCentral(external link) explores the stages of the development of humour.

You can also download the Peekaboo app.(external link)