I always thought my dad was so funny. We sat on the playground diggers together his huge legs sprawled over the child’s seat, my toes not even reaching the sand. He pretended to be a giant, and then pretended that I was a giant. He did silly voices and waged a war against me, dropping his excavated dirt into my fresh trench. There was no end to his little comedy routine. He’d crack a joke at my expense, or told me I’d already had enough ice cream and my five-year-old ego got offended.

A healthy sense of humor is a good sign of healthy development. The American Psychological Association has published many articles breaking down the mechanics of children’s humor. Slapstick comedy seems to develop first. Imagine someone trying to put their shoes on their hands, or pretending to spill a full glass of water. Even babies think that’s funny. At 14 months children can distinguish between intentional and unintentional actions, and soon afterward toddlers will start mimicking an exaggerated ‘mistake’, such as writing with the wrong end of a pencil. An APA article quoted psychologist Meridith Gattis’s explanation of humor’s benefits.

“Humor sets you up to understand that people can do things wrong and intend them to be wrong,” Gattis says. That’s an easy entry into duality–the idea that an action can mean more than one thing–a very difficult concept for young children, Gattis notes.

I remember how my dad used to pretend to climb into my car seat. He’d struggle with the straps and say, “Weird, I must have hit a growth spurt.” I laughed every time.

Later on, as children dive into the world of language, rhymes and puns become hilarious. This was about the age my dad would ask me, “What’s a pirate’s favorite letter?” At first it was “Arr!” But when I learned to anticipate the answer, he switched it on me. “Actually, it’s the C!”

“The items that preschoolers find funny are usually things that are implausible or incongruous. Essentially anything that goes against what is considered ordinary and predictable can delight their sense of humor. (…) Because the idea of disrupting the norm is so comical to preschoolers, “bathroom humor” is somewhat common in this age group. Four- and five-year-olds know that certain words are off-limits around adults (even if they do not know what the words imply).” Smithonian.com

Humor is seen as a magical cure for all ailments (and it often is). Think Patch Adams, or laughter therapy programs for cancer patients. The Mayo Clinic even has a page on the physiological benefits of laughter. I personally turn to satirical news sites, like The Onion, The Daily Show, or SNL’s Weekend Update skits to take the edge off the real world’s real horrors.

But there is a point where humor masks sincerity, and sincerity is in short supply lately. Sarcasm and irony especially walk a fine line between humor on one side and cruelty on the other. Sometimes sarcasm can make criticism easier to bear. But, according to an article published in the Smithsonian,

…researchers have found that the mocking, smug, superior nature of sarcasm is perceived as more hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism. The Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs. According to Haiman, dog-eat-dog sarcastic commentary is just part of our quest to be cool. “You’re distancing yourself, you’re making yourself superior,” Haiman says. “If you’re sincere all the time, you seem naive.”

Reading this reminded me something that C S Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, wrote a long time ago.

“Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. (…)It is a thousand miles away from joy. It deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”

Thinking about this line between humor and sincerity made me recall the other side of my dad’s comedy. Sometimes he seemed caustic, calloused. I knew he loved me, but sometimes his jokes kept a sharp edge between us. I copied his behavior, and I made more jokes. This was one of the ways I showed how much I loved him.

When the doctors found a lumpy mass in his pancreas I was terrified, and I asked if he was afraid, too.

“No way,” he said. “In fact, I wish it was a little bigger. It’s a bit of a let-down, you know what I mean?”

Later, when they gave him a grainy black and white ultrasound of the tumor, I asked, “Are you going to carry it to term?”

I don’t want to leave on a depressing note, but I do want to emphasize one point. Children need to learn about nuance, and they need to learn about coping with stress. Humor is a beautiful gift, because it makes us smile while we navigate a strange, sometimes frightening world. But kids also need to value sincerity. Today everything tends to be ironic, from our fashion to the news we watch and the words we say to the people we love most.

Now, since I’ve been brought up to use humor as a coping mechanism, here are a few of my favorite children’s jokes. If you ever feel the urge to delve into irony, into flippancy, maybe use one of these instead.

1. What’s a pirate’s favorite letter? Arrr!  

Alternate version: If the child answer’s Arrr, say, “No, it’s actually the C!”

2.What did one muffin say to the other muffin? Gee it’s like an oven in here.

-What did the other muffin say? Look, a talking muffin!

3.  Why can’t you give Elsa a balloon? Because she will let it go!

Contributed by Daniela Garvue