What makes Children laugh?
COMIC BOOKS don’t, jokes won’t and adults can’t — at least not intentionally. Take it from Boh, a child’s sense of humor is like nothing else on earth and a grownup who pries can expect to he reduced to nervous twitchings and deep thoughtful silences
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
CHILD PSYCHOLOGY has recently turned its attention to children’s humor, not only as an important element of character, but as an emotion that has a function in child management. I would like to contrib-
ute anything I can to this new field of research but first, it seems to me, we have to establish just what a child’s sense of humor is.
For instance, I’d like to know what goes on inside my youngest daughter when she docides to get funny in a letter. She’ll spend half an hour absorbed in writing to a great-aunt in Elmira. When she’s finished, she brings the letter in to us and reads:
“Dear Aunt Florence: Last night Daddy fell over a duck.”
My wife and I look at one another with puzzled frowns. Her great-aunt already thinks writers drink too much, among other things, and is capable of thinking they always keep ducks.
My wife says, “What on earth do you want to say a thing like that for?”
“To make my letter funny,” Mary says.
“Well, it’s silly,” my wife says. “I think you should change
Mary studies it thoughtfully. She suddenly puts her head on her arm, disappears behind her hair, wraps her legs around the chair, rubs about half an ounce of paper off the page, and starts over, as if carving her initials in the table.
She looks up and says, “I wrote something else.”
“Well, that’s better,” my wife says. “What did you write?”
“Last night Daddy fell over a kangaroo,” Mary reads.
She’ll keep this up until somebody stops her and makes her write, “I am saving stamps.” But the point is, she’s not the least bit embarrassed by the fact that her jokes are flopping like cool Yorkshire puddings. She’s completely cold-blooded about the whole thing.
In fact, I often wonder if children have a sense of humor in the sense that we think of it. Comic books, for example, never make children laugh. You can’t tell whether they’re reading the funny ones or the ones about setting fire to a gangster’s feet, by the expression on their faces. My youngsters often bring friends home after school and hand them all comic books as solemnly as if they are handing out instructions for applying for citizenship papers. They sit in a row on the chesterfield, twitching, sniffing and shaking their pony tails in complete dead-pan silence. When they’ve finished a stack, they turn on TV with the same joyless attention. They sit watching men in
space helmets who laugh, scream, sell chocolate drinks, chuckle, giggle and shriek until my wife and I are in a daze and wondering whether we’ll go down and sit in the garage until it’s over. The kids evidently love it but they must think it’s Medic or Kraft Theatre or something because their expressions never change. Occasionally one of them will reach down, catch hold of her foot and slowly bring it up until I’m wondering if her leg’s going to snap, or one of them will reach up behind herself stealthily, catch herself by the hair and try to pick herself up off the chesterfield. But nobody even comes close to laughing.
One little girl about a foot and a half high comes in from next door. She won’t talk to my wife or me, won’t answer us, won’t look at us, won’t even say good-by. She just appears at four-thirty, taps softly on the door, walks under my arm, says, “I have to be home by five o’clock,” and comes in and watches presumably the funniest stuff designed by man for children, then gets up and goes home looking just as sad as when she arrived.
Now and then one of my kids goes down to the corner store and buys a joke book called Some Fun, shoving her dimes across the counter as solemnly as if she’s paying a water bill. This book is about two inches thick, printed on grey blotting paper, and is full of fun, games, jokes and riddles. My kid gets no fun out of it, never laughs and can’t understand the riddles or make the jokes work. But she reads it from cover to cover, her face a mask, finishing all the jokes on one page, looking briskly to the top of the next page, like a mother reading a letter from her only son. Often she’ll read something to my wife and me at the supper table.
“When is a door not a door?” she’ll say.
“I give up,” I reply.
She peers out from her hair, her face wreathed in smiles. “When it’s upstairs.”
“When it’s upstairs? Why can’t it be a door when it’s upstairs?”
She wraps her feet around the chair, sniffs, wriggles, disappears behind her hair, looks back at the book and reads the answer again. Then she says, “Oh. That was for another joke. It’s, ‘When it’s ajar.’ ”
She resumes her smile. When everyone has started eating again, she asks, “What does ajar mean?”
The kids in the neighborhood read aloud to one another from this book. It’s a peculiar social game that I watch with fascination. The objective of the
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kid being read to is to get away. The objective of the one doing the reading is to keep reading aloud as long as she can. The effect is heightened by the character of the joke book itself, which has a peculiar flavor of a Sunday school paper written by an old drunk.
A couple of days ago out in my back yard a little girl, wearing a lace curtain over her head, walked around at an ecclesiastical stroll with her nose about two inches from the joke book, reading jokes to another kid with long black hair who finally disappeared under a tent about a foot high and made of a bed sheet. The one with the book stopped at the tent without taking her eyes from the book.
"'MIKE:’” she read, "'For gosh sake, Jake, I heard you were dead.’ ” The other kid’s voice came up from under the bed sheet. "I’m going home to supper now.” .She came out of the tent and walked away.
The one with the book followed her, just as if she hadn’t been insulted, head bowed over the page and still reading. “ ‘JAKE: They did say
I was dead, Mike, but I knew it was someone else when I saw myself in the mirror.’ ”
Her friend stopped abruptly, turned around and looked into her face searchingly and said, "Can I play with your lizard cage tomorrow?”
"No,” the first girl said, without looking up from her book. She turned a page. " 'MIKE: I’m in a terrible fix.’ ”
The one with the long hair said, "My mother says that she’s going to buy me a lizard cage a hundred feet high with real people in it.”
" 'JAKE: What’s the matter, Mike?’ ”
"-and I won’t let you play with
" 'JAKE:-’ ”
I don’t know what the kids get out of this. Nobody thinks it’s funny, including the one reading the book. Audience appreciation means nothing. If someone gets up and goes home, dragging all her toys, the reader just walks over to someone else who doesn’t want to hear it either. Nothing discourages her, offends her or stops her.
Another thing about children’s humor is that a joke can’t be shredded too fine to spoil their enjoyment of it, especially adult jokes.
A little while ago I told my wife that joke about the accountant who drove his fellow employees crazy with curiosity every morning for thirty-five years peering into his desk drawer then closing it and locking it. When he died and they opened the drawer, they found a note reading: "The debit side is the one next to the window.”
Both my kids laughed. When they were through, Mary said, "What does it mean?”
"Don’t you know?”
"Then what are you laughing at?” I asked her.
"I thought it was a joke,” she said.
I explained it to her the best I could. When 1 was through she laughed again, just as hard as the first time. About fifteen minutes later, she said, "Is that true?”
"Is what true?”
"Did a man lock a desk so that nobody could get into it?”
"No. I don’t think so.”
Mary laughed again. After the supper dishes were done she looked at six cartoons on TV without laughing,
then went outside and started building a chair out of some wooden boxes. heard her tell a friend of hers, "My daddy knew a man who couldn’t member what side of a desk he’d written on but it’s a joke.” They botl laughed. As far as I know, she and the gang still laugh at this occasionally.
Although any contrived humor on the part of a kid is more related to cold blooded curiosity than fun, they cat really laugh at some things, the humo: of which entirely escapes adults. I was watching a bunch of kids play one day when a plump little boy with slick black hair and enormous brown eyes got up from doing something, looked his shirt, did a little pivot and said "I’m a strawberry pie.”
The whole gang went completely ou: of control, swept by some strängt group hysteria, repeating to one another, "I’m a strawberry pie,1' ecstatically breaking things they’d been working on, rolling on the ground punching one another, doing headstands and getting red in the face. This was followed by a period of silence broken only by the sound of occasional halfhearted hammering by one kid whc lay with his cheek resting on his hand driving a nail through a board. A fe* minutes later they all started to fight all hitting one another excitedly wit! roller skates and skipping ropes anc wandering off home, some crying others scurrying around shrubs.
Mother Caught a Haymaker
A child’s sense of humor is very different from an adult’s. It’s closer our origins, and carries vestigial re mains of life in the Mesozoic swamps when lizards flew, mankind hid holes, and the sound of laughter oft« made our ancestors sit very still tryin) to make themselves look like leaves To pretend that a child’s sense humor is just like an adult’s, onl; smaller and cuter, is one of thos oversimplifications that is liable to era up in a few psychological split lips.
One lovely young mother I knos with beautiful buck teeth has airead; nearly had them knocked out by fo! lowing too literally the advice tha "the mother-child relationship can strengthened by peek-a-boo games an good-natured teasing.” She poked he little girl right in the middle of a tar trum and said something like, “A-a-a-i aticky-ticky-ticky,” and the kid, all one reaction, burst out laughing, burs out crying and took an ecstatic swin at her mother with a little tin steal shovel. Her mother spent the rest the evening re-reading the book with wet cloth over the bridge of her nose.
As a matter of fact, the author ha specifically pointed out that laughti and humor are closely related to cryini anger and tensional behavior—which, think, explains some of the humor« children that often baffles parents. other words, kids aren’t always feelit funny when they laugh.
Something that will always stand the way of an adult’s complete unde standing of children’s humor is the va difference in the way adults look children and the way adults look themselves. A couple of weeks ago picked up my wife at an afternoon te just in time to have a piece of cake at to see the hostess’ little girl walk within about three feet of one of tl women guests, stand there staring her for quite a while, like a touri looking at an exhibit of mediev tapestry. The woman found it amusii enough to get into the act, pursing h« lips and staring back at the child wit her chin tucked in, until the kid starte to laugh: not the kind of laughter" usually associate with children, bí
laughing way down in her throat. It sounded like something you might hear coming out of very deep grass, or a mossy hollow log.
The woman kept smiling but her eyes looked thoughtful, the way people’s eyes look when they say, "No, I mean it. Give me your honest opinion,” and get it. Rut she said stoutheartedly in a deep masculine voice, "Well, now, young lady, what’s so funny?”
"You look like a bureau drawer,” the little girl said, putting her head on the floor and laughing upside down,
which sounded even worse than right side up.
The kid kept it up until her mother crossed the room hurriedly and picked her up by a leg and one arm, swung her playfully. "I think.” she said, "Little Miss Tinker is getting a wee bit silly,” took the guest in with a glance of a wise mother coping with a childish situation, and added, "How can she be a bureau drawer, she has no handles,” and darted a stricken look back at the guest, a smooth round woman shaped like a salami. The mother’s grip tightened noticeably on the kid, who
flopped around laughing until she left the room in mid-air, singing "I can fly. I can fly. I can fly.”
The fact that this youngster left everyone very thoughtful and vaguely embarrassed was typical of a large area of children’s humor which tends to result in high-strung smiles and remarks about running along home now. A little while ago I was visiting some distant relatives whom I scarcely knew. We were all sitting around a small living room, each trying to remember just who one another was and how we were related, when a little boy with
thin hair slicked sideways over a broad round head started to send his younger sister into fits with suave blase remarks. If there’s anything vaguely disturbing to an adult it’s an eightyear-old being droll, although I’ll admit that this kid’s humor was wonderful, in a ghastly sort of way—like Shakespeare’s clowns. In fact it belonged to about the same era, if not earlier.
He’d make his face smoothly blank, let his eyelids droop and say things in a flat monotone like "Whoops!” or "Pardon me, I thought I was a movie star,” or "Sure, why not?” until his mother was practically in tears and saying desperately, "John, dear, won’t you show us the model airplane you built today?” At that John would raise his eyebrows, spin on his heel, with one hand extended horribly, and say, "I couldn’t really, you know,” and everyone would nearly die of embarrassment, including his mother, although his sister would nearly come apart.
His father, a big black man with a belt down around his knees, had kept out of the reunion as long as he could but had finally come up from the cellar to shake hands with me. He took one look at his son in the middle of the living-room floor, with everyone peering into their biscuits as if trying to figure out how they were made, and said, "Oh, my God! How long has he been doing that?” and got me out onto the porch to show me some cement work he’d been doing.
How to Make Adults Disappear
In other words, I think we should approach the study of children’s humor tentatively and with great reservations. A child’s sense of humor may play an important role in mental hygiene, as psychology has stated, and it may, as one doctor put it, "keep the mind from over-stretching.” Rut let’s not over-stretch this theory. A lot of children’s humor is basically a part of the process of evolution and hinges on making adults disappear, and for adults to try to enter into the game is a move that defeats itself at the outset.
I’ll always remember one time when I was living in a cottage on a rocky part of the shore of Georgian Ray, I was out for a walk one day along the big rocks There were just two other people: twc boys with smooth guileless faces clambering around the rocks like goats I stood at the bottom of rock they’c gone up, wondering whether I’d try it when one of the kids poked his heat over the edge and said, "Do you wan' to know how to get up, mister? Pu your left foot in that little ledge an( your right foot in that hole.”
"That one?” I said.
"Now put your hand there and you right knee in that crack.”
"You—you mean like this?”
I was now perched there like an ol rock formation and just about as im movable.
The kid studied me dispassionately "Now put your forehead against thi ledge and ease your knee out.”
"Look—for—I can’t move,” I said "What do I do now?”
He studied me a minute and said, " guess you’re too big.”
He said it matter-of-factly but i suddenly struck both kids as funny They disappeared, laughing—into th sky for all I know because I’ve neve seen them again, although I’ve ofte looked for them, peering shortsighted! into groups of small boys. I let mysel down with my fingernails, my forehea and the weave of my pants. I thin it’s roughly the predicament a lot c us will find ourselves in if we stai leaning too heavily on children humor, if