Children’s Humor: Infancy to Age Three

Adapted from P. McGhee, Understanding and Promoting the Development of Children’s Humor.  Published by Kendall/Hunt.  See Books by Dr. McGhee to order.

Ring a round the Rosie, pocket full of Posies.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall up!
(My son, age 2 ½ years.)

When parents think of their preschool children, the first image that pops into their minds is often that of play, fun and laughter.  Teachers of young children have always been aware of the crucial importance of play for learning, but humor also makes significant contributions to young children’s development.  It builds vocabulary and both pre-reading and reading skills, helps solidify the child’s knowledge of the world, supports creative thinking, builds social interaction skills, boosts popularity and self esteem, and provides the foundation for a skill that will help cope with life stress throughout the adolescent and adult years.

Parents and care providers can help assure that a child receives these benefits 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, a given kind of humor is also 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.)

Developmental Changes in Children’s Humor

For each of the stages described below, keep in mind that the ages are offered only as general guidelines to give you a flavor of how humor develops.  They reflect the peak of humor associated with that stage.  Some children enter a given stage much earlier than others, and most children continue to show the previous stage of humor long after the new form of humor first appears.

Humor first appears when children acquire a solid enough understanding of basic features of their world to know that distortions or incongruous presentations of those features are “wrong” or, in older preschoolers, “impossible.”

Stage 1: Laughter at the Attachment Figure (6 to 12 or 15 months)

In my view, the earliest form of humor is reacted to, rather than created.  The infant’s parents (or other primary attachment figures) are the most important part of her life.  And since parents are generally around, their faces and behavior are the best-learned features of the infant’s new world.  Parents are also emotionally important to the infant, and are associated with satisfying basic needs.  So it’s not surprising that the earliest form of humor experienced by infants involves things parents do.

By the age of six or seven months, you can find infants laughing at any unusual behavior of a parent.  This might include something like: waddling like a penguin, making silly faces, sticking half a banana out of the mouth, making exaggerated animal sounds (barking, mooing, etc.), sucking on a baby bottle, and so forth. If you haven’t done these to amuse your infant, you might want to give it a try.

These things are funny because infants recognize them as something beyond parents’ usual behaviors.  If the child’s parents had always walked like penguins or had bananas sticking out of their mouths for the first six months of the child’s life, these would be normal behaviors and would not be funny.

When my son was 7 months old, holding a (clean) diaper under my nose was always funny.  At 9 months, doing an exaggerated “Aaaaachoo!” after his own sneeze made him laugh hard.  After the second or third time, I only had to do the “Aaaaah” part to get a laugh.

One mother noticed that her baby seemed to be having trouble getting milk from her bottle.  Guessing that the nipple was clogged, she just popped the bottle into her own mouth to check it out.  The baby laughed as soon as she saw the bottle in her mother’s mouth.

Stage 2: Treating an Object as a Different Object (12 or 15 months to 3, 4 or 5 years)

By the beginning of the second year, infants begin to show a new and exciting behavior—pretend.  For the first time, they start treating objects as if the objects were something else.  Not all pretend play at this or any other age is humor, but it is this capacity for pretend that paves the way for the earliest humor created by the child.

Once the first birthday is passed, you may begin to see any of the following:  putting a bowl, diaper, washcloth, etc., on her (or your) head as a hat; using any small long object as a toothbrush; or holding a shoe (or spoon) to her ear saying, “Hello daddy.” At 26 months, my son, who did not want to cooperate with an imminent diaper change said, “Don’t want new diaper.  Give tape new diaper.” He then put a videotape onto the new diaper and laughed.  When he was 20 months, I put his pants on my head (like a hat) as I was getting him ready for bed.  He laughed, and when I took them off, he quickly handed them back to me and said, “Again, again!” with a big grin on his face.

A classic example of Stage 2 humor occurred at 24 months, when he took his shoes and put them on his hands saying, “Look, shoes on.”  While he did not laugh this time, he had a mischievous smile on his face that reflected obvious pride in his insight.

Stage 3: Misnaming Objects or Actions (2 to 3 or 4 years)

While humor based on using objects in “wrong” ways continues, budding language skills generate new opportunities for humor.  After age two, parents increasingly hear, “What’s that?  What’s that?”  Two-year-olds are very excited by the realization that everything has a name, and they are thirsty sponges for every name you can give them.  Since they have built into them a strong drive to play with all new skills, it’s just a matter of time before they begin playing with the names of things.  So what do they do?  They give you the wrong name!

Many parents first see this new form of humor in the “Show me you nose” game.  Even if you’ve always played the game straight yourself, they day always arrives when you say, “Show me your nose,” and your child gets a mischievous grin on her face and points to her ear!  She may or may not laugh, but there’s no doubt that this is pretty funny to her.

Once children achieve this insight—that it’s hilarious to call something a name you know is wrong—every object or person is fair game.  Cats will be called dogs, mommy will be called daddy, daddy will be called the child’s own name, and so on.  It’s all just too funny!  Go along with your children on this and enjoy their enjoyment.