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Sense of Humour and its Relevance to Children

My visit to meet sixteen-months old Kyle was overdue. He seemed perplexed at this stranger coming into their living room. I stooped down to the toddler's level and handed him the musical toy I'd brought. He walked with short unsteady steps, fairly adept for someone who'd just mastered upright ambulation. His mom, Chris, opened the package. When tipped, the instrument played several tunes so he was amused for a time and enlisted my participation by handing it to me to play. Mom suggested that he show us his stuffed monkey, but he had another game in mind. He stumbled around and around the dining table attracting daddy, John, to follow. Dad's long strides were closing in when Kyle dropped to the floor on all fours and crawled lickety-split around and around the table laughing and laughing. His six-foot tall daddy, now on his hands and knees, was closing in again, so Kyle moved to hide behind his mother's chair. Everyone was laughing.

I tell this story to illustrate two points: Kyle already had a sense of humour* and John knew how to "play" with his son to encourage development of that sense of humour. Philosophers and scholars debate whether a sense of humour is genetic. I believe that even though character traits may be genetic, all of us can develop a sense of humour and humour is an important coping mechanism.

Concepts of humour - The Wikipedia encyclopedia defines humour as "the ability or quality of people, objects, or situations to evoke feelings of amusement in other people - communication which makes people laugh or feel happy." A sense of humour is the ability to experience humour, which all people share, however there are variables including geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education and context.

Humour straddles two almost opposite stands writes Glenn D. Wilson, Institute of Psychiatry, University of London. "Laughter (which) seems to derive from the expression of hostility and superiority, and smiling, which derives from pleasant affect and appeasement gestures." Humour seems to depend on a rapid succession of threat and safety signals. Initially laughter produces stress signals: increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle spasms, but these are of short duration and are followed by relaxation. There is apparently something cathartic about this sequence.

History of theories and studies regarding humour - In the past Philosophers, then scientists studied humour. To name a few, Plato (425-348 B.C.) equated humour to its manifestation in laughter and wrote that laughter is pleasure, gloat over misfortune, expresses malice toward the painful. Appreciation of the ludicrous is a release like scratching an itch. Ben Jonson (1572-1637) wrote that comedy is therapeutic. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) expounded further - humour must contain something new and unexpected. David Hartley (1705-1757) first theorized a connection between fear and laughter. Babies fear first, then experience joy when the fear is removed. When you toss a baby in the air, he laughs when he is caught. But if you keep throwing the child up in the air, there is too much fear and the baby cries. Children learn to laugh easily just as they learn to talk and walk. Soldiers laugh after they escape a dangerous situation. Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the English naturalist, noted that in the animal kingdom sounds were used as a call, to charm the opposite sex, to express a joyful meeting between members of the same social group. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) believed that when repressed material is freed, the psychic energy required for the suppression is released into explosive laughter. The child is a bundle of fears. He laughs when an adult trips because he feels superior. "You fell, I didn't." (Bergler)

Humour Therapy - My friend had bypass heart surgery. It's a frightening experience with unknown complications. His surgeon was a cheery man who walked with a bounce. One day he discovered that a former patient of his was in the bed next to my friend. "Ah, Mr. White," he said. "You escaped me. You passed out on the golf course when Dr. Smith was on emergency call, and he got to perform your operation. You are so lucky. It was the only day this week that Dr. Smith was sober." We all roared because the end of the story wasn't what we expected. We thought he would say that Dr. Smith was a better surgeon. We are sure Smith isn't a drunk. The joke was told to lighten our spirits. I felt as though a weight had been lifted from my chest and was optimistic about the future.

Laughter provides an opportunity for the release of uncomfortable emotions which, if held inside, may create biochemical changes that are harmful to the body. The ability to laugh at a situation or problem gives us a feeling of superiority and power. Studies by psychologists show that humour buffers mood disorders, yet only 34% of people say they use humour to manage their mood (Ruch). Depressed people see no humour in situations.

The Brain - Peter Derks (William and Mary College, Williamsburg, Va.) recorded EEG's when the subjects were presented with humorous material. (1) the cortex's left hemisphere began analysis of the words, (2) most brain activity moved to the frontal lobe (center of emotionality), (3) the right hemisphere joined the left to synthesize a pattern, "to get the joke", (4) the increased brain wave activity spread to the sensory areas of the brain, the occipital lobe, (5) increased fluctuations in the delta waves reached a crescendo as the brain "got the joke" and the external expression of laughter began. Humour pulls various parts of the brain together. Humour is a defense mechanism. Unlike repression, it does not smother the painful idea but finds a way of withdrawing energy from the painful experience through the discharge of pleasure.

Why children laugh - R.W. Washburn wrote that children laugh more than adults. They have more fears. The child learns that if he falls, he isn't severely hurt, so he laughs and says, "I fell because I wanted to." He sees things he once feared as being funny, and that makes him feel that he is in control. Anna Freud, Psychoanalyst, says that the child can not be converted by words alone. The child needs participation by adults. Kyle's dad, John, in the first story, participated in the chase. Kyle experienced a sense of power over the helpless feeling he usually had with adults. He laughed because, like the child who fell, it was as though he allowed the defeat. He wasn't conscious of that feeling. It was an innate, primitive response. Nor was I conscious about why he laughed until I read studies by social scientists. The laughter unconsciously comes as a defense against a despair at being so helpless. The adults laughed because it was unrealistic for the toddler to try racing a big man like his father. The joint laughter united all of us in a bond of joy.

Other reasons for laughter - Culture is a factor. In some cultures laughter expresses surprise, wonder, embarrassment and discomfort. When laughter isn't an expression of joy or happiness it may be forced to conceal other emotions: anger, shame, shyness, derision, contempt.

Installing laughter in children - Some verbal and non verbal ways to provoke humour. FUNNY SOUNDS: Making the sound of an airplane as the chop sticks move toward a baby's mouth to feed him will make him laugh. As well repeating the sounds of musical instruments heard in musical recording or reading to your child and changing your tone to imitate sounds and voices in the story will encourage a response to the humour. When I lived in China I was asked to help a worker devise ways to enrich the lives of 20 children, age 2 to 5, in an orphanage. I suggested that she read stories to make them laugh, but she was convinced that they wouldn't listen. In frustration I took a book, perched on a child-sized chair and began to read in English. Page one was a picture of a cow. "Cow, moo, moo," I said, pointing to the cow, then I pointed to the picture of a dog on page two. "Dog, woof, woof." One child climbed onto my lap and the others took chairs in front of the book. The children laughingly caught on and repeated my words and sounds. When we reached the last page, I turned back to page one. Without any prompting they shouted, "Cow, moo, moo," and so on. In a few moments these children laughed and learned 10 English words. After many decades I returned to visit the school where I taught English in Japan. My former Chu Gakko (junior high school) students, now mothers, invited me to lunch, gathered together and sang the funny songs I'd taught. THE UNEXPECTED - Surprising behaviours such as putting an empty cup on your head or making funny faces, playing peek-a-boo, gently tickling will make baby laugh and imitate your action. When dressing a three-year-old, if you put the pants leg on his arm or put his sock on his hand, he will laughingly tell you what is right. Telling and listening to jokes like the doctor joke in which the end isn't what we expect expresses humour. Exchanging amusing stories about misunderstandings, use of homonyms, for example, stimulates the child to respond. Years ago in Japan a mother came with her new baby and brought us flowers. My housemate remarked "Hana ga takai, desu ne?" meaning the baby's nose is high (A high nose is considered preferable to a flat nose.), but the mother exclaimed about the costs of roses versus chrysanthemums. (hana = nose or flower; takai = high or expensive) We all laughed. Humour can be brought out in others in many ways: acting out animal behaviour, telling exaggerated stories is amusing or using a banana for a paper weight makes us laugh. When a child inadvertently spills his milk, handle the negative by saying, "That's okay. The cow will make more milk." MORE IDEAS - Other easy ways which allow the child to appreciate and develop skill at employing homour include using riddles, cartoons, comedy shows, tongue twisters, having the child write funny captions for pictures, employing props such as huge framed eye glasses or a plastic nose.

When humour isn't funny ­ Comedian satirists poke fun at the stereotypes of their culture, but children should avoid poking fun at skin colour, religion, sex and bathroom humour. They should avoid teasing and taunting about ethnic or physical differences. The adult present should tell the child that his words are hurtful and not funny. Give examples of jokes that apply to all people, strengthen bonds and leave feelings of optimism. (e.g.: The riddle - Why did Jane put a clock under her pillow? So she would wake up on time. Another - If the rain keeps up, it won't come down.) The class clown can be a problem. Tell the disrupter that there is a time and place. Set a few minutes at the end of the day for children to "be funny." Australia has a national class clown competition for 9 to 12 year-olds. Teachers and parents should laugh at themselves and share their mistakes. Model the humour you want children to learn. Help the child make strategies to use humour as a coping skill. The overweight kid, when taunted, can say, "Yeah, you're stronger than me so I'll make you my body guard." When I was in grade school the cereal Wheaties was touted as a breakfast of champions. It was customary for the captain of teams to take turns choosing teammates. Two girls were always the last to be selected. One girl cried. The girl who didn't cry said, "We don't eat enough Wheaties." The girls nicknamed her Wheaties and she became a fun person to have around.

Some findings you may wish to know - Paula St. James and Helen Tager, University of Massachusetts, Boston, conducted studies involving children who were autistic or had Down's syndrome. All children, except one, responded to some humour at every session. There was a seven month delay in moving to interpretations involving higher skills. They responded to auditory stimuli and tickles before they could respond to visual and social stimuli.

The content of humour reflects the adult person's problems and preoccupations. Male humour is typically more sexual and aggressive whereas females enjoy more self-deprecating jokes. Assuming that humour is a coping device, this provides clues about the gender problems people face (Ruch).

Teacher Nik Peachey, of the British Council, suggests that we look at TV and make note of the popular jokes to get a sense of what is funny in a specific culture. Christie Davies believes that the absence of political and social jokes in some countries suggest that these areas are problematic.

Lynn Cherkas and colleagues, St. Thomas Hospital, London, England tackled the nature versus nurture debate. A humour study was conducted involving identical twins (100% same genetic inheritance) and fraternal twins (50% same genetic inheritance), some raised together in the same home and some siblings raised separately. The finding concluded that for children to develop a sense of humour, the environment was more significant than genetics; humour is learned. (Franzini)

Dr. Prathiba Shammi and colleagues at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, Canada have identified the right frontal lobe as the part of the brain associated with humour. Their studies indicate that even though the ability to understand more complex jokes deteriorates, old people retain a sense of humour and it helps them adjust to problems of aging.

In his book, which quotes authors of current studies, Ruch concludes that humour is benevolent. It is an attitude of mind rather than an activity of the mind. I believe that when we laugh with someone we lose all sense of ethnic, cultural and physical alienation. We start as friends who have something in common and can tackle the root of a problem or just enrich our lives laughing together.

Summary - Humour has been studied since early times. A sense of humour is a coping mechanism based on a primitive response to alleviate fear. It can be used as a defense. Children laugh more than adults because they have more fears. Stress can be alleviated with humour. There are verbal and non verbal stimuli to encourage humour in children. Children should recognize condescending and abusive humour and learn to empathize. The content of humour identifies problems. When we laugh with someone we come from the same emotional plain and that allows us to bond.

* For consistency the word humour (humor) is spelled with a "u" in this article.

Useful bibliography

Bergen, Doris. "Humor". Childhood Education, V69 #1, pp 105-06, winter, 1992
Bergler, Edmund, M.D. Laughter and the Sense of Humor. Intercontinental Medical Book Corporation, N.Y., 1956, 67, 80
Franzini, Louis R., Ph.D. Kids Who Laugh: How to Develop Your Child's Sense of Humor. Square One Publishers, N.Y., 2002
Klein, Amelia J., Editor. Humor in Children's Lives. A Guidebook for Practitioners. Praeger Publishers, Westport, 2003
Rush, Willibald and Victor Raskin, Editors. The Sense of Humor, Exploration of a Personality Characteristic. Humor Research 3. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 1998

The Librarians at Women's College Hospital, Toronto, were instrumental in helping me find research material.

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