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Why I Measure Parenting Success By How Frequently My Family Laughs

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One night last week, while driving home from work, I tuned in to NPR. I was just in time for the TED radio hour, and I was immediately rapt. For the next 60 minutes, I listened as British neuroscientist Sophie Scott gave a talk titled simply: “Why We Laugh.” In it, Scott said:

“So if you ask human beings, ‘When do you laugh?’ they’ll talk about comedy and they’ll talk about humor and they’ll talk about jokes. If you look at when they laugh, they’re laughing with their friends. And when we laugh with people, we’re hardly ever actually laughing at jokes. You are laughing to show people that you understand them, that you agree with them, that you’re part of the same group as them. You’re laughing to show that you like them. You might even love them.”

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Parents talk a lot about the struggles of raising children. We talk about the long nights up with our toddler and the fights over potty training and the messy bedrooms. Fights between spouses that can leave you feeling picked on or under appreciated. We talk about the challenges of bringing up decent kids in a complicated world, and how it often feels like you are under qualified for the job. How confusing it can be to try and understand an emotional little boy or girl, and how much our children remind us of ourselves, and exactly how maddening and frustrating that can be.

But what we don’t discuss — at least, not as much as we should — is how often parents laugh. For some reason, until I heard Scott speak, I didn’t realize just how significant laughter can be when raising a family.

A doctor performing a typhoid vaccination in Texas, 1943
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Which seems strange, when I think about it.

I told her to stop wiggling, to keep her hands out of it, and she looked up at me with big blue eyes and said, ‘Strawberry.’

I consider myself a fairly funny guy. I tend to get people laughing. I know how to use a joke to disarm someone. I know that when someone says something funny, it’s polite to laugh — it shows them that you’re engaged. I’ve been in a car with a group of good friends, where everyone is laughing so hard the windows fog up.

But none of that comes even close to the laughter that I have in my home.

There’s something about making my wife laugh that fills me with more than joy. More than delight. It’s a sweet feeling, of both warmth and attraction. It feels like some non-verbal, uncontrollable signal that says, “I love you,” in way that could never be conveyed through language.

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When Mel and I were first married 11 years ago, we laughed at each other. We laughed at home; we laughed on dates. We even laughed while making love — something that I never realized could happen, and every time it did, I wondered if we were strange for doing it, because sex seems like something that should be serious; and yet, laughter feels so natural, it happened all the time. (It still happens.) We laughed way more than we fought, and although I never made the comparison, I realize that it’s something I should have thought about long ago.

And now that we have children, we laugh even more.

Just last week, I was wrestling my toddler into a diaper and feeling a little frustrated, as I often am when she gets squirmy. I told her to stop wiggling, to keep her hands out of it, and she looked up at me with big blue eyes and said, “Strawberry.” Her eyebrows were up, face somber and sincere, like she’d really nailed that social interaction thing; and I couldn’t help but laugh, long and hard over it.

I felt the same thing when my oldest daughter stepped from her room wearing a rainbow poofy skirt shoved under a princess dress and some black biker boots

I felt that same warm feeling that I often get when Mel and I laugh. I felt the same thing when my oldest daughter stepped from her room wearing a rainbow poofy skirt shoved under a princess dress and some black biker boots, her lips curled on the one side like she really knows something about fashion. And again when my son tells me some lame joke about Minecraft that might be funny if I were a little boy and actually understood Minecraft, but because he followed up his own joke with uncontrollable, hands over his round tummy, laughter, I couldn’t help but laugh.

Near the end of Scott’s TED talk, she mentioned a really interesting study where couples were placed in a lab and asked to describe things that irritated them about their partner.

Here’s what she shared about the findings:

“Couples who manage that feeling of stress with positive emotions like laughter, not only immediately become less stressed; they can see them physically feeling better, they’re dealing with this unpleasant situation better together. They are also the couples that report high levels of satisfaction in their relationship and stay together for longer. So in fact, when you look at close relationships, laughter is a phenomenally useful index of how people are regulating their emotions together. We’re not just emitting it at each other to show that we like each other, we’re making ourselves feel better together.”

What I’m trying to say here, is that although parenting and marriage is stressful on a million different levels (I don’t think anyone will deny that), laughter is what keeps you going. Laughter is what allows you to take the good with the bad; to make it through the harder days or the tougher moments.

I can say one thing for sure: I laugh more now than I ever have in my life. Laughter must be, without a doubt, the true language of love. And if you’re stressed out about your family, your budget, or your relationship, and are still laughing? Realize that it’s because above all else, you are in love with these people; and that you are, in fact, a stronger parent and partner because of it.

At the end of the day, if you’re laughing through it all, you’re doing something right.

Check out Clint Edwards’s new book, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (Parenting. Marriage. Madness.). You can read more from Babble below: