How Children Develop Humor

Since it’s the season of trickery, it’s the perfect time to talk about your child’s developing sense of humor.

Every parent knows the utter sense of joy when you hear your baby’s laugh for the first time. A four-month-old’s laugh may be inspired by something as simple as seeing mom make a face they’ve never seen before or by a glance at the family cat. We delight in these early laughs, and babies love to see our reaction.

In fact, they may begin laughing just because it’s a fun sound to make, it feels good or they’re enjoying moving their mouths and making different sounds. Parents of children whose hearing loss has been identified, and who have received early intervention, get to hear these early sounds in action.

It can be hilarious for us to see what makes little ones laugh. From those spontaneous and seemingly random baby laughs, to toddlers who fall into giggle fits over silly words or obvious puns, laughter is more than a fun rite of passage. It’s one of the first steps in a child’s development of social and communication skills. Humor is also a sign of developing intelligence and resiliency when things don’t go as planned.

What is humor anyway?

In the simplest of terms: humor is the ability to appreciate the unexpected.

What begins in infancy as a biological capacity to laugh, evolves to seeing humor in situations, understanding the jokes other people make and, in time, making our own! Our brains are wired to experience pleasure when we laugh. A sense of humor develops as the brain’s ability to process information develops. With early identification and amplification, the brain of a child with hearing loss can have access to the sound they need for their sense of humor to grow.  

What makes us laugh?

Even as adults, what makes one person laugh may bring an, “I don’t get it,” stare from someone else. A child’s understanding of humor changes as they learn and grow.

There are two kinds of humor:

Physical:  Physical humor helps a child make sense of their environment. We start to see signs of physical humor when a child can track and imitate those around them.

Examples of physical humor might include:

·     Physical stimulation: a baby laughing when tickled

·     Mimicry: seeing the adults laughing and mimicking them

·     Social: seeing they can please adults by laughing or laughing for a response

·     Surprise: acknowledging a falling object with an accompanying “uh oh!”

Linguistic: We start to see signs of linguistic humor when a child can hear and begin to process the meanings behind words. They reference the meanings of those words based on their understanding of the past and might laugh when something is out of sync.

This understanding of “how the world works” allows them to “get the joke” when something is out of place.

How does humor develop in children?

Obviously, all children develop at their own pace. While one child’s development may look slightly different than another’s—the general stages of development tell us what makes children laugh:

  • 6-12 months: Takes delight in caregiver’s unexpected actions

          Example: peekaboo or “this little piggy went to the market.”

  • 12 to 15 months: Graduates from reacting to something funny to initiating it

           Example: putting a cup on Daddy’s head and calling it a hat

  • 2 years: Makes “mistakes” to show mastery of a subject

           Example: You ask her to show you her nose, she points to her knees

  • 3 years: Distorts known features of words, ideas, and objects

           Example: asking for a dirt muffin or worm cheese; slapstick and potty humor

  • 4 to 5: The pre-riddle stage, when they have the form but not the content

           Example: “Why does the chicken cross the road?” “To go to bed.”

  • 6 to 7: Riddles and knock-knock jokes

           Example: “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?”

Note: This handy list was developed by and published byBarbara Meltz in the The Boston Globe.

Why humor matters

There are many reasons why it’s important for children to have an appreciation of humor:

Joy— Earlier we referenced humor’s benefit as it relates to pleasure. The brain is wired to enjoy a good laugh — and what parent doesn’t want more joy for their child? The pleasure centers in the brain release endorphins when we laugh that help relieve stress and promote all around health.

Resiliency — The ability to find the humorous “silver lining” in an unexpected situation makes it infinitely more endurable. A sense of humor can help someone get through seasons and situations that might be boring, difficult, painful, uncomfortable or anxiety-ridden. In these times, a sense of humor is considered a true gift.

Social — One of the most profound benefits of a sense of humor is its social value. For adults and children alike, those who can take a joke or make those around them laugh are often loved, accepted and appreciated by others.

What's so funny?

Here are a number of ways to ensure that children who are deaf or hard of hearing are developing humor just like their hearing friends.

1.     Know the status of your baby’s hearing. Linguistic humor requires a growing grasp of language. If your baby’s growing brain does not have access to sound, the development of humor will be delayed alongside other language development.

2.     Explain the joke. As adults we think that something ceases to be funny when it has to be explained but talking through humor can help. Children with hearing loss often miss out on the subtle language of slang and riddles. This might require that you “spell things out” or “state the obvious” for a while to help them pick up on the patterns and cues of humor.

3.     Think about humor as one of many developing skills. If you are a Listening and SpokenLanguage practitioner, be sure to look at all aspects of a typical child’s development and try to bring awareness to learning partners to ensure that these social skills are developing.

4.     Set the bar high! We want to make sure that children who are deaf or hard of hearing are able to understand and use humor alongside their hearing peers.


Blog post originally appeared on the Hearing First blog, Development of Humor.

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