Why humour is an effective tool for parents
Jokes and playfulness win the cooperation of children more easily than threats and demands.
By Aruna Raghuram • 16 min read
Satish is at a toy store. He has just told his four-year-old daughter Nitya that he will get her only one toy. Her little arms full of toys, she looks at him balefully. Her expression tells him: “It’s time for a tantrum!” Nitya starts screaming and flaying her arms about, dropping all the toys. She throws herself on the floor and wails. Satish looks highly embarrassed (just stops short of apologising to the curious customers around), bundles up his daughter in his arms, and makes a quick getaway.
Meera has been trying for the past half-an-hour to get her six-year-old son Hari dressed to go for a wedding. He is at his obstinate best. He runs around the room dodging his mother who is trying to get him to wear his shirt. It’s getting late and Meera is losing her patience. But instead of yelling at her child, she decides to play along. She starts running around the room with Hari’s shirt. “Come and get me!” she chants in a sing-song voice. Hari is surprised by her reaction, enjoys the game, snatches the shirt from her, and puts it on. Job done!
Being a parent is one of the most fulfilling experiences you can have. But you will agree that it is very stressful as well. Imagine, having to be responsible for another human being 24x7 for at least 18 years! Whether it is an infant who keeps you awake at nights, an obstinate toddler, full-of-questions preschooler, argumentative pre-teen, or defiant teen – children can be a handful.
What can make parenting easier is a dash of humour. Humour brings things in perspective for parents and stops them from taking every hiccup along the way too seriously. It also diffuses tense situations and helps parents connect better with their child.
Let’s see how Satish could have handled the stressful situations above differently – with some humour. Perhaps, Satish could have rolled his eyes at his daughter and asked aloud in the store: “Who is making such a ruckus?” He could have then told his daughter in a funny voice: “I am the toy monster. I have come to eat all the toys. Run children, save your toys.” And then, changed the voice back and said, “Let’s pay for our toy and run!”
WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO USE HUMOUR IN PARENTING
A 2008 study titled ‘Humor in the Home and in the Classroom: The Benefits of Laughing While We Learn’ published in the Journal of Education and Human Development highlights the benefits of using humour in parenting. It says that social and intellectual development of children can be enhanced and enriched when they are exposed to the regular and appropriate use of wit and humour by parents and teachers.
By using humour as a natural approach to communication and interaction, parents can “boost creativity and critical thinking skills, promote values, teach good moral behaviour and civic responsibility, instil trust and confidence, and provide children with a means of coping with sadness, disappointment and grief,” observes the study. Quite a bucketful of benefits!
Described below are some reasons why humour and laughter are linked to effective parenting:
Laughter is the best medicine: Laughter is good for the physical and mental health of both parents and children. It helps reduce blood pressure, gives your cardiovascular and respiratory systems a good workout, and releases endorphins – the feel-good chemicals in the brain.
An antidote for stress: Sometimes, parents take things too seriously and this causes them to be anxious and stressed. Children too pick up anxiety and stress cues from parents. Humour and laughter ease parental anxieties. Laughter actually reduces levels of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Enhances connection: Humour is known to help maintain satisfying interpersonal relationships. Children relate better to parents when they use humour. Humour also helps create fun memories and thereby promotes bonding with children.
Discipline tool: Humour gets the job done and aids in discipline. Parenting expert and author of Positive Discipline Jane Nelsen believes that humour is a key tool in successful discipline as it helps break the negative mood not just for children but for parents too.
Humour surprises children: Humour can disarm a toddler who is throwing a tantrum. It can diffuse an impending power struggle between parent and child and make the latter more cooperative. When parents start laughing, when children expect them to yell, it confuses children and they forget what the fight was all about. Parents do not have to shout, nag and cajole their children endlessly if they have humour in their arsenal.
Changes the outlook: Humour can turn a negative situation into something positive. You are frustrated and ready to throw away the spoon as you try to feed your obstinate infant who is refusing to open her mouth. If you start singing a silly song to relieve your stress you are changing the negative situation into something funny, and positive.
Laughter can heal relationships: If you have a strained relationship with your teen where angry words are the norm, try to change the dynamics by using humour. Not only will you be able to connect better with your rebellious teen, laughter will heal the breach, making both of you forget all the harsh things said earlier.
Humour reduces aggression: By being playful with their children parents can help them get rid of aggression in healthy ways by roughhousing (play fighting) like having a pillow fight or play wrestling. According to parenting expert and author Laura Markham, roughhousing is essential for children. It helps them manage aggression and builds self-esteem as children experience their own physical strength. Also, laughing, which is part of roughhousing, creates more oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which strengthens relationships.
Children develop a sense of humour: You can nurture your child’s sense of humour by using humour in various situations and making him laugh. Several studies show that children learn humour from their parents.
Humour promotes learning: Humour is known to boost motivation and memory by its action on the brain’s dopamine reward system. Also, parents could help their children remember facts and concepts by using rhymes, puns, jokes, and word plays.
It builds resilience: Humour helps you cope with ups and downs of life better. In fact, when family members laugh together, they are less likely to experience sadness.
It is important for parents to ‘lighten up’ in front of their children. Of course, there are situations where humour is not the answer. In these cases, parents may have to bite the bullet and act tough. Also, at times, parents may be just too tired, or dealing with other stressors and it may too much effort to be playful or funny. In these situations, parents should explain the situation to their children in an age-appropriate manner – they will find their children surprisingly understanding.
I am the one in the family cracking foolish jokes and making my daughters laugh. My teenager tells me that this relaxes her when she is stressed about studies. Nowadays, she is overdoing the exercise/fitness thing. I keep bugging her about it, but in a humorous way. I think that makes it feel less like nagging.
- Bhaskar Dole, father of a pre-teen and teen
HOW HUMOUR COULD BE USED
Here are some suggestions on how parents can use humour while parenting:
Toddlers and pre-schoolers
Act to entertain: You can dress up and talk like your child’s favourite cartoon character or superhero to entertain him and make him forget that he is angry or distressed.
Clown around: Talk or walk in a funny way. Fall down and pretend to cry. Toddlers, who fall down often themselves, find it very funny when adults do so. For toddlers and preschoolers, distractions like chasing and making stuffed animals talk, work well too.
Use puppets and other props: You can put on a funny-looking hat or glasses to make a tearful child smile. You can also animate puppets and stuffed animals, making them walk and talk, to teach your child manners and inculcate other values. By making it funny you may get through to your child better than a lecture would.
Sing a funny song or play music: You can put on some upbeat music as they are playing with their toys or sing a catchy toothpaste jingle to egg them on to brush their teeth.
Play games: Games like pillow fights and play wrestling are not just fun. They make your child feel empowered if you let him win. This puts him in a good mood and he is likely to cooperate with you.
Soothe anger with love and fun: In her book Listen: Five Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges, author Patty Wipfler suggests ‘The lion tamer game’. If your child lashes out in anger at you by hitting you, you can calm him down by saying: “Looks like I have an angry lion on my hands, let me tame her with kisses.” You can chase her and shower her with kisses when you catch her. Soon, she will be laughing and her anger will subside, explains Wipfler. This shows your child you love her even when she is at her nastiest.
Employ novel tactics: If your child is making a fuss about taking medicine, first empathise with her that the medicine tastes yucky. You can then start playing a game where you both compete in making the most disgusting faces and noises.
Author Jane Nelsen gives an innovative example. A mother pretends to read her child’s horoscope to find out when he would stop procrastinating and do his chores. Explaining why laughter is beneficial, she says: “You laugh, and then you see things differently; you feel differently, you act differently.”
Use a fake voice: Psychologist Dr Larry Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, feels that parents can discipline their children more effectively if they connect with their child with play and humour. Walk into a messy room and ask your child to clean it in a fake voice, he suggests. It is more likely to get the job done than if you give your child a lecture on being tidy.
Pre-teens and teens
Communicate via funny notes: Leave a note for your child reminding him to make his bed: “I am feeling very cold, please put some clothes on me.” Or, to feed the dog: “I am hungry, please give me lunch.” This would probably work better than commanding her to “make her bed” or “feed the dog”.
Watch comedies together: Watching a funny movie or television show as a family and laughing together can create a positive atmosphere in the home.
Share funny parenting stories: You can relate funny incidents from the past to your child about how both of you behaved. Now, that they are older, they will be able to see the humour in those incidents. Sharing these inside jokes is a great way to bond. Also, making light of your travails with other parents can help you find humour in situations that had aggravated you earlier.
Laugh at yourself: It is important for parents to learn to laugh at themselves when they have done something silly. The next time your pre-teen calls you a cheeky name because you have dropped something, don’t ask for an apology or punish him with a time-out. Instead, laugh at yourself and say: “I am clumsy, ain’t I?” Not only, will you both bond over a laugh, he will respect you for being a ‘cool’ and ‘fun’ parent.
How NOT to use Humour
- The humour you use with your child should be healthy. There should be no disparaging remarks, no hurtful teasing, sarcasm or ridicule (for example, “You’re so fat you could roll away to your room”). Also, take into account the age and temperament of your child while using humour. A sensitive child may feel she is being ridiculed even when she isn’t. That’s why do not direct humour directly at your child – she may not think it is funny and may get hurt instead.
- Be careful in using ticking as a way to get your young child to laugh. Your child may not be able to communicate they want you to stop while being tickled (since laughing is an automatic response to being tickled, whether it is enjoyable or not). Also, forcing a child to let you tickle them can send a dangerous message about body autonomy.
In the daily stresses of parenting, you may forget how to have fun and laugh. You may begin to resent the demanding and sometimes unrewarding job of being a parent. This is when humour comes to the rescue. Not only will it make enforcing discipline easier, it will make parenting more enjoyable.
In a nutshell
- Parents should not take either themselves or their parenting travails too seriously
- Humour is a useful tool to discipline a child and make him cooperate with you
- Humour is a great way to charge the environment with positivity and connect with your child better
What you could do right away
- • When your toddler refuses to eat his vegetables, tell him a funny story to entertain him
- • The next time your teen misbehaves, make a humorous comment instead of getting angry
- • Make time to bond with your child by sharing jokes and funny stories
About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 10 December 2019.
Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a freelancer with ParentCircle.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 13 December 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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