Children’s Humor: The Preschool years

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

 [Note: The previous article on children’s humor discussed developmental changes from birth to age three.  This article continues the discussion of age changes in children’s humor from about three to five years of age.]

When it comes to what makes kids laugh, the preschool years are a delightful time for every parent and child care provider.  Children’s sense of humor seems to really come alive during this period.  Preschoolers’ books and television shows take full advantage of children’s love of doing things backwards or wrong, and generally turning the known world upside down with delightful incongruities and absurdities.  Several different aspects of three- to five-year-olds’ humor are developing at the same time, so these will be discussed separately.  The age norms in parentheses refers to the fact that these kinds of humor generally first appear around age three and become less common by the age of five as they are replaced with a newly emerging form of humor (which will be discussed in the next Children’s Humor article).

Stage 4a: Playing with Word Sounds (not meanings) (3 to 5 years)

Several new forms of humor emerge by the end of the third year.  Simply calling things by the wrong name continues to be funny after age two, but a new way of playing with words appears around age three (as early as 2 ½ in some children).  Children become very attuned to the way words sound, and begin playing with the sounds themselves.  This often takes the form of repeating variations of a familiar word over and over, such as “daddy, faddy, paddy,” or “silly, dilly, willy, squilly.”

Sound play may also show up by altering the sound of a single word in an otherwise normal sentence, such as “I want more tato-wato-chatos” for potatoes.  Complete nonsense words may also appear, as in “Let’s all spooty-dotty-ditty-bip.”  In the second half of his third year, my son enjoyed nonsense words so much that we often had verbal jousting sessions in which we would take turns hurling nonsense sounds at each other.  This was great fun off and on for several months and a wonderful chance for family bonding.

Stage 4b: Nonsense Real-Word Combinations (3 to 5 years)

In addition to playing with the sounds of words, most (but not all) three-year-olds also start putting real words together in nonsensical combinations known to be wrong.  Their budding linguistic competence tells them that words are put together in certain combinations, but not others.  So we would expect them to find great fun in simply putting words together in silly ways that they know are wrong.  These combinations appear to simply be another way of distorting the known properties of objects.  The following are typical of this kind of humor:

“I want more tree milk.” 

“I have a mail box flower.”

“I want more potato (dirt, guitar, etc.) juice.”

 My wife and I were especially delighted the day our son changed a familiar game we played.  My wife or I would sing “peanut, peanut butter” and he would chime in “and jelly.”  Sometimes he would start out and we would say “and jelly.”  We would repeat this 5-10 times before he was ready to move on to something else.  One day, at 28 months, instead of saying “and jelly,” he said “and refrigerator,” followed by “and light,” “and daddy,” etc.  Anything that he happened to see at the moment was fair game.

Stage 4c: Distortion of Features of Objects, People or Animals (3 to 5 years)

By age three, children go beyond knowing that things have names to an understanding that these names apply to classes or categories of objects that share certain key features.  Even though the child has been using the word “dog” correctly in referring to many different dogs, this is the first point at which “dog” is thought of as a category of animals with certain shared features.  This includes barking (vs. meowing or mooing), a certain range of differences in size, color, hair length, etc., four feet, no hands, two ears, etc.  A new form of humor, then, can be expected to involve a violation of any of these features that define “dog” in the child’s mind.

Stage 3 humor still occurs at this point, but children are now beginning to play with concepts.  Most now find it funnier to distort some aspect of their new conceptual understanding of objects than to simply call them by the wrong name.  The examples below illustrate the most common forms of humor at this stage, although they are not exhaustive.

a)  Adding features that don’t belong: a dog’s head on a man’s body, a tree with cakes growing on it, cats and dogs coming from clouds instead of rain.

b)  Removing features that do belong: a cat with no tail or legs, a car with no wheels, a person with no nose or ears.

c)  Changing the shape, size, location, color, length, etc. of familiar things—a person with a square head, polka dot ears, or eyes in the wrong place.

d)  Exaggerated features such as a long neck, big ears, enormous or very pointy nose—and misplaced features such as eyes and ears in reversed places.  (Just for fun, try this with Mr. Potato Head and see what happens.)

e)  Incongruous or impossible behavior—a cow on roller skates or sitting in a tree whistling like a bird, a baby pushing a carriage containing an adult in diapers, sucking on a bottle, a dog playing a piano and singing.  Adults can also find these images funny.  Far Side cartoons are often based on these kinds of images.

Even though children laugh at these things, either created by themselves, seen on TV, or read in books, the firmness of their level of confidence in what is and is not possible is often seen in their questions to parents: “Daddy, pigs can’t really fly, can they?”  “Lions don’t read books, do they?”  “Cars can’t drive themselves, can they?”

Many children enjoy pretending to think that you may also be confused, so they tell you, “It’s just pretend, Daddy.  Trains can’t jump.”  Consider feigning confusion about just what animals, trains, etc. can and cannot do and appreciate your children’s helpful explanation.