What’s so funny?

by Dr. Joseph Michelli

Some fortunate children are exposed to adults who know the constructive value of a well-placed misdirection or exaggeration, while others are subjected to often joyless, overly serious adults.

I have been lecturing nationally for a number of years on the use of humor in a variety of different situations. During these presentations, I typically teach humor skills and the value of humor in handling difficult people at work, managing change and improving immune functioning or overall health.

During this time, I also have privately experimented with the role humor plays in raising children. These experiments have been conducted on my resident laboratory animals, Andrew (6) and Fiona (2-1/2).

In 1996, I had the good fortune of meeting Jim Fay, who was a guest on my nationally syndicated radio show, Wishing You Well. Jim’s wisdom and clarity about parenting were paralleled by his heartwarming stories.

During the interview, Jim’s reflections on parenting frequently were witty and light- hearted. He seemed to suggest that adults can avoid overreacting to the “crisis du jour” by gaining distance through humor. This radio interview led to other conversations about humor and parenting and ultimately to a new book from the Love and Logic Press entitled Humor, Play and Laughter: Stress- proofing Life with Your Kids.

Why Humor?

Helping parents and teachers gain or regain the power of humor skills can greatly facilitate a Love and Logic approach to raising children. This benefit occurs in large measure because humor offers the opportunity to distance oneself from initial reactions to children’s behavior.

It is in this slightly removed place that we often can most effectively craft loving and logical responses to children’s behavior. Additionally, teaching children the appropriate timing, location and use of humor has a variety of benefits for them in their social, intellectual and emotional development.

Charles Shultz, the creator of Peanuts comic, said it best when he noted, “The greatest gift we can give the next generation is the ability to laugh at themselves.”

Humor Appreciation vs. Humor Skills

Most people think of humor as a “sense.” much like taste vision or hearing. In fact, humor can be looked at as either a cognitive set (a way of looking at life or a group of skills for enhancing the enjoyment of life by others.

A humorous attitude represents a willingness to track absurdity or incongruity with a spirit of amusement or whimsy. Its been said that people with excellent humor appreciation can find “great joy during detours.

Learning to be amused, as opposed to agitated, by the unexpected or unpredictable behavior of children is critical to surviving their volatility. Similarly, knowing how to produce humor can greatly enhance the cooperation and mood of a non-cooperative child.

Enhancing Humor Appreciation

We are what we track. When my wife was. pregnant seemed like everyone was pregnant. When I bought my new car everyone else had purchased the same car – even in the same color.

Since much our life is spent tracking things such as our children’s misbehavior, bills and possible corporate downsizing, it is no wonder that humor appreciation skills can become rusty.

Comedian and author Steve Allen noted that the “funniest things in life are the unintended humor of reality.” All of us would benefit from becoming more awake to the unintended humor moments of parenting and teaching.

Additionally, we can encourage children to develop their “comic vision” as a central way to enhance the experience of humor in our homes and classrooms.

Simple techniques like keeping a journal of funny events, placing humorous cartoons on the refrigerator or chalkboard and sharing the absurd events of the day can encourage and enhance the humor awareness of family member and classroom members.

Humor Production

By spending a small amount of time learning and practicing the basics of comedy, parents and teachers can become far more effective at producing and using humor at home or in the classroom. Please realize that I am no talking about telling jokes.

Recent research suggests that 90 percent of people don’t tell jokes particularly well; unfortunately, that does not stop a lot of them from trying. By humor production skills, I primarily, mean such things as good news/bad news techniques, exaggeration and misdirection.

A friend recently told me how she and her 7-year-old daughter, Sarah, colluded to misdirect her husband and ultimately the behavior of Sarah.

Sarah apparently had the habit of wiping her hands on her clothing, as opposed to her napkin. In response to this Sarah’s father continually encouraged, begged and even bribed her to use better manners. Despite these efforts on her father’s part, Sarah’s behavior had not changed.

Prior to an upcoming meal, Sarah’s mother advised her to hide her napkin on her lap so Sarah’s father could not see it. She further instructed her to wipe her hands on her napkin in a way that caused Sarah’s father to think she was engaging in her typical behavior.

When Sarah’s father began his verbal disapproval of Sarah’s dining habits, she and her mother began to laugh and Sarah waved the hidden napkin at her father. While Sarah and her mother had misdirected Sarah’s father, Sarah’s own behavior had been misdirected away from wiping her hands on her clothing to using the napkin.

Many examples of humor production techniques and activities can be found in Humor, Play and Laughter: Stress-Proofing Life With Your Kids (hint!, hint!)

Opportunities abound for creative use of humor techniques with our children, and when all else fails we can turn these techniques back toward us. Using humor to cope with parenting and teaching enable us to take our jobs as parents and teachers seriously but to take ourselves lightly.

I believe that laughter in a classroom can facilitate learning and that families that laugh – last. With practice using humor, play and laughter in the classroom and in family life, we can lessen stress and strengthen bonds with children.


Copyright 2005 by Dr. Joseph Mitchelli. Reprinted with permission. Joseph is a professional (and funny) motivational speaker based in Colorado. You can reach Joseph at www.HumorProfits.com