Humor Facilitates Children’s Social & Emotional Development

Why did Mr. Timmons wear a seat belt while eating his dinner? 

Because he was on a ________ diet.  (Answer is given at end of article.)

[Adapted from P. McGhee, Understanding and Promoting the Development of Children’s Humor.  See “Books by Dr. McGhee” to order.]

The previous article on children’s humor discussed the important benefits that the active use of humor during childhood has on the child’s intellectual development.  Most of my programs for early childhood educators emphasize the importance of learning to use the love of humor to support children’s acquisition of new knowledge by bringing age-appropriate humor in educational settings.  While we all know about the importance of play for learning, parents and early childhood educators have generally not given much attention to the positive role played by humor (which is on form of play—mental play, or play with ideas) in children’s development.  In this article, we focus on the social and emotional benefits resulting from children’s active use of their growing sense of humor.

Social Benefits

Among both children and adults, humor is now understood to be one component of interpersonal competence.  It is a key social skill that will serve your child well in the work world down the road and in interpersonal relationships generally from this point on.  Children who initiate humor more often than their peers have been found to show more social participation in activities; they also tend to be judged by their peers as being more sociable.  This is true from the preschool years on through high school and into adulthood.  Children who know how to use humor in social interaction are also better at putting others at ease.  This creates an environment in which all communication is easier—an enormous benefit at all stages of life.

Kids who initiate humor more often are also seen by other children as being more likeable.  Thus, these kids tend to me more popular and have more friends.  For those children who have difficulty making social connections with other kids (for any reason), supporting the development of a good sense of humor by parents is especially important.  Many children find themselves being isolated at recess or during other social activities for any number of reasons—poor social skills in general, poor athletic/gross motor abilities, learning disabilities, unusual physical characteristics (skinny, overweight, big ears, etc.), a lisp or stutter when speaking, and so forth.  These same kids create their own path toward overcoming this social rejection when they develop strong skills at making other kids laugh.  This, in turn, opens the door to future opportunities to improve their skills at interacting socially in general.

Emotional Benefits

Finally, humor provides children with a socially acceptable means of expressing anger.  This will facilitate the handling of conflicts in social situations throughout the developmental years.  A great deal of attention has been given in the past decade or so to emotional intelligence—a form of intelligence that has long been neglected.  The ability to manage one’s own emotional state (as well as the emotions of others) is considered by virtually all of the major researchers/experts on this topic to be a key component of emotional intelligence.

There is ample research showing that humor is a very effective means of managing one’s emotions—of sustaining a more positive, upbeat mood and attitude on the tough days as well as on the good days.  My book, Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health, documents this evidence.

When you see young children playing, you generally see them laughing.  This laughter is a reflection of the joy and happiness that humor and play provide, but we now know that laughter can also help generate a joyous and happy state in children where there was none before.  So nurturing children’s sense of humor helps them gain a measure of control of their daily mood.  (And you know that when they’re in a good mood, it’s easier for you to sustain a good mood.)

Good humor skills during childhood help build a solid sense of self-esteem.  Since humor and shared laughter help the child receive a lot of positive feedback from other kids (and adults), this gradually builds a strong sense of good feeling about oneself.

Perhaps the most important long-range emotional benefit of humor resulting from the development of good humor skills during childhood is the coping skill known to be associated with humor.  There is a large body of research documenting humor’s power in helping adults and adolescents cope with life stress.  Kids who build this skill early on are able to benefit from this coping advantage throughout their life.

[Answer to above riddle: “crash.”