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Published: Sunday, 6/10/2012

Parents can nurture kids' sense of humor

BY JUDY HEVRDEJS
CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Have you ever done something funny -- put a sweater on backward, stepped in a wad of gum, spelled "happy" wrong on a birthday cake-- then laughed about it?

Good for you. Hope the kids were watching. For every time you laugh at some silly challenge, channel Goofy to get a giggle out of a little one, or laugh at a fixable oops, you're modeling the value of humor. Beyond the big belly laugh, humor can help ease life's tiny bumps and serve as a teaching moment for children.

"A parent who can be silly or enjoy doing things that are kind of fun and exaggerated, I think gives children some really good coping skills," says Doris Bergen, a distinguished professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. "Life is going to have things that are not going to go the way you want them to, and it helps if you have an ability to see the funny side of things."

Start early. "Very young children begin to see things that they think are funny at a very early age," says Ms. Bergen, who has done extensive research into humor and play. "Even in the first year of life, there are some things that are just kind of nonsense or funny things that happen.

"Toddlers are very tuned in to what might be funny," she adds. "They make up lots of little jokes. If you want to encourage your children to have humor, you need to be responsive to that, and kind of join in the fun."

The goal is kids who not only appreciate jokes, but who know how to take and make a joke themselves. "Some children perhaps naturally are more likely to see the humor in things," she says. "But I think it is also something parents encourage or don't encourage in children."

However, once children get past 8 or 9 years old, silly may not always work -- particularly if the intent is to tease. Parents must be mindful of whether the intended humor might be hurtful, she says.

"Teasing is something that parents can help children distinguish between what's playful or not," she says. "The key is that [all parties should be] enjoying it."

Which is why it's important for parents to help children learn to use humor to cope with rough spots in their life.

"You have to help them learn to 'take a joke' ... to learn to tease back, or you need to be able to take it and change it," Ms. Bergen says. Or not pay attention to it, she adds, or say something back that conveys that it didn't really bother you.

"Humor is a very important coping mechanism," Ms. Bergen says. "That's a skill that's important for children to learn."



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