Making Jokes and Taking Them

The age of tantrums is far behind us. At 7 years old, my son has become better at talking about his feelings. When overwhelmed, he has coping mechanisms—deep breaths, requests for hugs—that help him regain his cool. So, I was surprised recently when he had a complete toddler-like meltdown over… corn.

He’s typically the self-designated shucker in the family, ripping husks from the cob with gusto. But on this particular day, he decided that corn silk felt gross and he didn’t want to touch it. When my wife gently pressed, Felix dug in his feet. A typical parent-child conflict ensued, during which my son burst into tears and began yelling that no way, he wasn’t going to shuck the corn.

And that’s when I began to giggle.

Maybe it was the repetition of the word shuck in his high-pitched little-boy voice that did it. Or a response to the extremity of his upset—with the discarded corn at his feet, he began bawling. Or it could have been one of those parental sanity-survival mechanisms that kick in at times like this, when the emotionality of child-raising becomes ridiculous. Whatever the case, I couldn’t suppress a grin. “Really?” I asked him. “Is corn shucking worth all these tears?”

Not surprisingly, Felix thought I was laughing at him and not the situation, which made him cry more.

Reader, I will not lie. At that point, my humor became pointed and less-than-kind. I told him he should just say “shuck it.” “What’s the shucking problem?” I asked. Maybe, he should cross one off his “shuck-it” list. This at least had my wife laughing too!

As parents, we need to nurture good humor in our children, but that’s harder than it sounds. Growing up, I heard my family joke around, often in a good natured manner—but not always. My physical coordination wasn’t the best, which led to ribbing about my athletic abilities. Those comments became prophecies as my increased self-consciousness further hindered my ability to relax and perform on the playing field. And it turns out they were wrong—the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized I am a fairly athletic person. Improperly used jokes can be harmful to our self-esteem and confidence.

On the other hand, having a sense of humor about oneself is very helpful to your mental health. Laughter defuses anger, fear, sorrow, and panic. Belting out a laugh brings our awareness from the head to the gut; it’s grounding. The saying goes that humor equals tragedy plus time, which implies a realization that this moment won’t be every moment, that what feels big now might seem smaller later. In short, laughter comes with a sense of perspective.

Laughing at yourself is not just a coping mechanism, it’s also an important part of light-hearted communication with others. People who take themselves too seriously all the time can be killjoys. The trick with humor is figuring out how to use it effectively without going overboard. Here are some ideas on how to communicate that to your child.

Model a lightness of spirit

Show that it’s okay to laugh at oneself by having the ability to take a joke. Give the person who’s making fun of you the benefit of the doubt, and assume they’re not trying to hurt or offend. Try not to be hypersensitive or too serious; take a deep breath and see the humor. I especially like to clown when I make a mistake or when I’m bored. At these moments, jokes help by distracting me from my anxiety, disappointment, or anger. This is especially important for me as the father of a little boy. Men traditionally have had trouble expressing weakness or seeming out of control, but I’d much rather laugh and release any negativity than swallow it down all stoic and tight-lipped.

Set limits by joking in moderation

My son told me about one of his favorite jokes to play at school: creeping up behind someone and making tweeting sounds, then looking around and saying, “It must be the birds outside.” He said this was so funny, he did it a few times each day. I shared with him the rule of three, which I learned years ago in a Beverly Cleary book about Ramona Quimby: once is funny, twice is enough, three times is too much. I told him how a joke, if repeated too many times, can become annoying, and he agreed that it was time to retire his bird routine.

Speak with a smile

Delivery matters. Looking at someone, making eye contact, smiling not just with your mouth but with your eyes—all of this body language clues the person into a joke. Verbally reminding them “I’m not serious!” is helpful too. Jokes are a different kind of communication; they’re not fully truthful. It’s almost like speaking in code. Let the person know you’re not talking with them in a serious way; otherwise, confusion sets in and meaning is misconstrued.

Kids know this better than most. I’m sure you’ve heard a child say something disrespectful or rude and then, when called out on it, say, “I’m just kidding—jeesh.” Of course, they’re not kidding at all; they’re just saying that to get off the hook. I make it clear this is not acceptable. Jokes cannot be covers for out-and-out rudeness, nor should they smokescreen aggression. The tone is just as important as the content, and the two have to be in sync for the joke to hit.

Remembering the importance of feelings

When someone gets bothered, offended, angry, or upset by something you’ve said and does you the favor of openly telling you they’re hurt, never reply dismissively. If a person’s feelings are hurt, it’s the joker’s responsibility to apologize. Jokes are great fun as long as everyone is in on it. Comedy is a two-way street. And a misplaced “lighten up” or “stop being so sensitive” will lose you the trust of that person.

Sometimes, I go too far. When Felix asks me something that to my mind sounds childish and a bit silly, I’ll quip in response. “Dad, stop, you’re kidding,” he’ll say in return. And yes, sometimes I’ll push him a bit by either telling a second joke or dryly replying “I never kid,” with a wink. That itself has become a joke. “Dad, you only say that when you are kidding!!” But if my poking fun goes further than that, as it did with the corn shucking, I apologize, and we talk it out. The kid’s got a great sense of humor, and I want him to smile, not grimace in annoyance (unless I’ve made a really corny pun or something).

He also recognizes that sometimes his dad’s onto something even when he isn’t quite ready to appreciate the joke. For instance, I just asked him if he remembered the night he cried because of shucking corn. “Oh yeah,” he said. “That was funny.”

Now that brings a smile to my face.