Articles on Children's Humor

by Paul E. McGhee, Ph.D.

Head, Shoulders, Knees and . . . Peanut Butter
What Makes Young Children Laugh?

Knock-knock.  Who’s there?  Piece of bread.  Piece of bread who?  Piece of bread …Want another piece of bread?

Parents and care providers can help assure that a child receives the many developmental benefits offered by humor by acquiring a good understanding of just how young children’s humor changes as they get older.  This makes it easier to provide humor that matches the child’s current developmental level and appreciate children’s own forays into the world of humor. There are two basic principles to keep in mind.  One is that children’s sense of humor reflects their new intellectual achievements.  Humor is basically a form of intellectual play—play with ideas.  Children have a built-in tendency to have fun with newly developed skills—both physical and mental. Further, humor is generally the funniest during the months (maybe even a year or two) after the time it can first be understood.  Riddles, for example, are most funny in 1st and 2nd grade, but become progressively less funny after that, because they are just too easy to understand.  (This is also why adults groan at some puns.) (Read More...) (Download as PDF) (back to top)

How Humor Facilitates Children’s Intellectual, Social and Emotional Development

A six-year-old boy in a drug store with his mom puts a box of Tampax on the counter.  The person behind the counter says, “Are you sure this is what you want?”  The boy says, “Yeah, I’m sure.  It says right on the box that with these you can swim, ride a bicycle and play tennis . . . and I can’t do any of those things.”

One direct result of this excitement about double meanings of words is an enriched vocabulary.  Riddles expose children to new words and meanings, and the repeated telling of the riddles consolidates the memory of those words and makes them more accessible in everyday life. Reading skills also receive a boost as a result of the keen interest in riddle books and other funny books.  The best way to build reading skills is to find a way to make reading exciting for kids, and nothing beats humor when it comes to generating excitement.  Some kids read the same books over and over again when they can’t find new riddle books.  The reading skills acquired from reading riddles generalize, of course, to all forms of reading. . . Humor also boosts children’s creative thinking capacity.  Research showed decades ago that there is a close relationship between the kind of thinking involved in humor and other forms of creative thinking. (Read More...) (Download as PDF) (back to top)

Children’s Riddles: The First Sign of an Adult Sense of Humor

What cake can you drink coffee from?  A cup cake.  (Sorry, coffee cake is too easy).
What boats can you always buy at a reduced price?  Sale (sail) boats.

A general shift in children’s humor begins to occur in the early elementary school years.  This shift is more striking than any shown at any other age.  By six or seven, kids make the exciting discovery that the same word can have two (or more) different meanings.  This means you can now use these extra meanings to trick people.  It is only at this point that children really understand the very riddles they’ve already been telling for the past year or more. (Read More...) (Download as PDF) (back to top)

How to Use Riddles to Build Your Child’s Verbal Humor Skills

When do astronauts eat pizza?  At _______ time.
1st clue: Play with the name of one of the three meals of the day.
2nd clue: You use this word when you start a new project.
3rd clue: What do you call it when they send off a rocket?

In all of the examples shown here, a key part of the punch line is missing.  The answers are given at the end of the article.  Be sure to ask your child to use the clues to try to create a funny answer before looking at the answers; otherwise the exercise does not help build humor skills.  Please note that adults will also benefit from these exercises.  Even though adults will not need all the clues, you will probably find it difficult to come up with a word play answer using no clues at all.  The more examples like this that your child goes through, the greater the extent to which this form of verbal humor (quickly seeing  double meanings as a basis for humor) will become a permanent skill within his/her developing sense of humor. (Read More...) (Download as PDF) (back to top)