A Laughing Matter

Today I'm excited to welcome Jeff Tierney to the Corner for his guest post on laughter.

Thank you, Jeff, for sharing your experience, wisdom and insight with us. 


A laughing matter: Why humor is important to children's development
Imagine, for a moment, being a parent who’s having a few guests over; maybe your in-laws, a neighbor, or even your pastor. So far, everyone is having a great time and even the kids haven’t done anything too wacky. Then all of a sudden, without warning your ten year old utters those seven infamous words “I heard a joke at school today.” And despite your best efforts to make sure it’s an appropriate one, there’s no un-ringing that bell and the joke proceeds to be told.

Humor is an important issue at Boys Town. You might say we take the ability to laugh very seriously. Many of the children and families served by Boys Town programs across the country have experienced lives full of sadness, loss, tragedy, and disappointment. Often they have been robbed of many things that are essential for a normal, happy family life…including the ability to laugh. And it’s easy to see why. For many of our children, life has been anything but a laughing matter.

But cultivating a good sense of humor and ability to laugh are critical to our kids’ happiness and eventual success as adults. Researchers have linked having a good sense of humor with lower stress levels, better interpersonal relationships, longer life-span, and greater career advancement.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many good role-models for having an appropriate sense of humor out there for our kids. This is especially true of television where much of the “humor” is fairly mean-spirited. Consider TV shows such as Punked, Wipeout, Scare Tactics, and Fear Factor. Comedy at other people’s expense and discomfort is not the best way to teach children what’s really funny.

A good place to start is knowing the difference between being funny and having a sense of humor. Being funny means being able to express humor of one kind or another by being witty, telling a well timed joke, making a pun, getting other people to laugh, etc. And most comics say you do need to have a sense of humor to be funny. Trying to be funny without a sense of humor can easily come across as sarcastic, belittling, and defensive toward others. Ridiculing other people, either in person or online, is a good example of this.

In contrast, having a sense of humor means being able to laugh at, or at least see the humor in, life’s absurdities (even when they happen to you). But you don’t have to be funny in order to have a good sense of humor. A great skill that everyone (including our kids) needs to learn is how to not take oneself quite so seriously, be able laugh at our own mistakes, and know the line between good natured ribbing and malicious teasing. We actually have two skills in our Teaching Social Skills to Youth book, available from the Boys Town Press, that directly address the issues of teaching kids to use appropriate humor and be able to laugh at themselves. These skills are, and you probably guessed this, “Using Appropriate Humor” and “Laughing at Oneself.”

There are specific steps to both of these skills that make them much easier to teach to a child.  For example, the steps to “Using Appropriate Humor” include:

1) Look at the circumstances to see it’s an appropriate time for a joke,
2) avoid humor that makes fun of groups in our society or another person,
 3) avoid sexually-oriented jokes and profanity, and
4) if your humor offends someone, promptly and sincerely apologize.

By breaking skills down into specific steps, kids have a much easier time discussing them with you and practicing them. You can even point out when watching TV when one of the characters of a show didn’t use those steps and hurt someone else’s feelings.

There are lots of ways parents and even teachers can help their kids learn how to laugh, have fun, and even deliver a good one-liner. Good luck and keep smiling!

Jeff Tierney, M.Ed. has worked with children and families for over 35 years.  He has just recently retired from Boys Town in Nebraska after 28 years working in the staff training and evaluation areas and, most recently, as Director of the Boys Town Press. Jeff is the author of Teaching Social Skills to Youth, Basic Social Skills for Youth, and articles in professional journals on reducing aggressive and antisocial behavior in children and teens.

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