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Developing a Sense of Humour

baby laughingThe first little smile and the heaven-sent gurgles of laughter that baby shares with us are truly magic moments in the early days of parenthood. But when does a baby chuckle start to develop into a true sense of humour?

"A baby is socially very complex from the moment they're born," says Dr Paul Hutchins, Head of the Child Development Unit at The Children's Hospital at Westmead in Sydney.

"Babies smile in response to another person's smile within weeks of birth. In the early months babies are responding to physical fun, like a tickle or a raspberry on the tummy, with a smile and a laugh." And baby's sense of humour simply starts to flourish from here, just as crawling leads to walking and babbling leads to a little one speaking in a complete sentence.

Do funny parents have funny kids?

Strictly speaking, there's no 'funny gene'. A sense of humour is not inherited, but we've all met families that share similar characteristics - the laid-back family, the highly-strung family, the never-crack-a-smile family or the laugh-a-lot family. "All human qualities tend to be traits that exist in families, and that applies to emotional responses, like happiness, feeling anxious and displaying humour," says Dr Hutchins. When it comes down to it, babies are fine mimics. If you're having a laugh, chances are baby is trying to enjoy the joke too.

Valerie and Carrington, mummy and daddy to two-and-a-half year old Billy, fall into the 'funny family' category: "Without wanting to sound like an idiot, we're funny people," says Valerie. "We like laughing, and spend quite a bit of time and effort making each other laugh. So I guess Billy has always been immersed in that. We couldn't help but make stupid faces and voices when we were bathing him and changing nappies. Billy's always loved tickling games too, and loves when unexpected tickling occurs. In our house, Incy-Wincy Spider turns into a tickle spider at the end of the song. To Billy, that's hilarious."

But what if I'm not a funny mommy?

Baby's developing humour is not all about watching parents cracking jokes and acting the twit. As Dr Hutchins says, "The most important thing is to encourage fun and playfulness from the earliest of days. Some parents are inherently more playful than others and find it easier to talk and play with their children. All parents have to be themselves and we know the most effective style of parenting is to give love, clarity, encouragement and confidence."

A sense of humour can be passed on to your children in subtle ways that you're not necessarily aware of. Alexandra Diamond, an Early Childhood Lecturer at the University of South Australia, talks about the particular brand of humour that can develop in your household. "Just like there is an Aussie sense of humour that sets us apart from other countries, many families have their own family words and family jokes, which can provide a bond," Alexandra says. "Our family coined the term 'bum noise' because I couldn't deal with my angel toddlers saying the word 'fart'.

Laughter Class: An Introduction to Baby Humour

  • Get physical! Baby humour starts with tickles and raspberries.
  • The mime artist Mummy smiles, baby smiles. Mummy pulls a silly face, baby tries to copy.
  • "What's going to happen next?" Play games based on anticipation, like peek-a-boo or 'round and round the garden' where baby learns that a big tickle comes after "One step, two step?
  • "What's wrong with this picture?" Mummy is pretending to drink from baby's bottle and Daddy is wearing a nappy on his head! Babies love this kind of incongruity. It's very funny when something is not quite right!
  • Rhyme and repetition: As baby's language starts to develop play games with sounds and words. It's time for nursery rhymes, rhyming words and lots of repetition. Dr Seuss books are perfect!
  • Clowning around: The more you laugh and positively respond to your child's humorous antics, the more they will perform?over and over again.
  • Make the humour age appropriate: If you're itching to plonk the baby in front of South Park, think again. The humour needs to be appropriate to the child's developmental level (Then again, if South Park makes Mummy roll about laughing, then that could be pretty funny for the baby!)
Humour is a useful tool

Why is a sense of humour such a useful tool for children anyway? "It's been very clearly demonstrated that humour, a sense of optimism, belief in one's self and approval from others are very important for long-term well being, emotionally and physically," says Dr Hutchins.

And then there are the social advantages when it's time for pre-school and big school. As Alexandra puts it, "Humour allows children to communicate with each other in enjoyable ways. We all enjoy being around people who can make us laugh, and children are the same. Children who can make others laugh can be less physically powerful, less physically attractive or less successful at school (all things that can make a child less popular) and still be part of the group."

Billy's mum Valerie sums it up nicely: "Humour diffuses conflict and puts things in perspective. Being a child is quite hard stuff sometimes, and we hope that humour is a big part of giving Billy a positive foundation for his relationships with others. Most importantly, though, having a sense of humour is all about feeling good about yourself, and your life, and in my mind, it's never too early to encourage that in your child. Laughing is good - it feels good, it keeps you smiling, and if I want Billy to have any memory of his early childhood, then I'd like it to be that he laughed a lot with his Mum and Dad."