At two-and-a-half years old, my daughter, Anna, would tell the same quirky story every time we had company: “Sadie said, ‘Mama is beautiful,’ and I said ‘nooooo.’” This story didn’t make sense to our guests—the way she told it, there was no context. As her mom, though, I’d heard it many times before, and I knew the exact episode she was trying to recount: I once wore bright pink lipstick while picking her up from daycare, which prompted another kid at the daycare, Sadie, to tell me I was pretty. I asked Anna if she thought so, too, and she emphatically said no, which was funny. Later, I shared this anecdote a few times with friends, and everyone laughed, Anna included. I’m sure she doesn’t know why what she’d said was funny, but she kept trying to replicate the laughs she got the first time.
It’s an interesting step in her development. She’s always giggled at things that were out of the ordinary or over-the-top—this type of humour milestone typically comes first. (Babies will smile at physically funny things, like goofy faces or an adult balancing a toy on her head, for instance.) But it wasn’t until Anna’s second birthday, and the very social setting of daycare, that she started trying to tell her own jokes.
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A series of studies from Cardiff University in the UK have confirmed that parent and caregiver tone and affirmation of what’s funny are the primary clues children use to understand humour. The researchers looked at how important mimicry is to kids’ learning, and found that children as young as one begin to impersonate others. They ought to be able to tell the difference between what’s funny and what’s not by the age of two. The other key ingredient toddlers need in order to develop a healthy sense of humour is… you: They learn from adults who model funny behaviour and demonstrate lots of laughter.
“There is a strong correlation between children who have a well-developed sense of humour and parents who are inclined to joke and laugh with their children,” says Ruth Bancroft, an early childhood educator in Vancouver.
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Lindsay Barton, a Toronto child therapist and development specialist, says that a toddler sees a parent using a certain kind of humour and getting positive feedback, and wants the same type of recognition. This is exactly why Anna keeps repeating her “joke” to pretty much anyone. “Twelve to 36 months is when most toddlers start developing interpersonal skills, and humour is part of how they choose to outwardly seek attention,” says Barton. Toddlers will check an adult’s facial expression to make sure what they’ve done is getting the intended reaction. They’ll also mimic peer behaviour and look to each other for affirmation.
Interestingly, kids can’t tell the difference between jokes and mistakes until they’re two. A mistake, for example, would be when an adult accidentally spills a cup of water and says, “Oops.” The joke version of this is when an adult is purposefully being silly and splashes water around—older toddlers can sense that this is funny, not an accident.
Michael Edmondson, a Vancouver father of now-three-year-old Henry and three-month-old Frank, says that while Henry is a really goofy kid, he looks at Dad like he’s crazy when he tries to tell a knock-knock joke—Henry just doesn’t get it. This is normal: Children may be as old as six before they can understand puns or plays on words.
When it comes to imitation and physical humour, Henry’s got it covered. Staff at his daycare report that he likes to entertain people with funny dances. And it doesn’t matter to toddlers how often a joke is repeated, says Bancroft—you’ll still get belly laughs every time. This became problematic when Henry went through a phase of thinking it was hilarious to repeatedly fall down. “We had to hold in our smiles so he would quit throwing himself about,” says his dad.
A version of this article appeared in our November 2013 issue with the headline “Funny girl”, p. 74.