4 Ways Parents Can Raise Funny Kids With A Sense Of Humor

Funny kids aren’t born; they’re raised. Parents have two options how: Give their kids trauma, or use these techniques to instill in them a healthy sense of humor.

A dad and daughter laughing on a couch.
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Kids say the darndest things. They also tell the worst jokes. Not all the time, of course, but it can take a while for them to develop a healthy sense of humor. It’s not their fault, as finding the funny can sometimes require abstract thinking. This doesn’t happen in earnest until ages 11 to 16, at least according to developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Even then, not every kid is going to be the life of the party who keeps everyone in stitches. But laughter and jokes are important to develop. A sense of humor not only makes friends, but is a serious boon for lifelong mental health.

“Anxiety and stress hate fun,” says anxiety therapist Chad Brandt, Ph.D. “When we're anxious, everything gets serious, and everything feels really heavy. It gets hard to be ourselves. So trying to find places to fit in fun is usually really helpful for both parents and their kids.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of daily opportunities to help kids develop a healthy sense of humor, which doesn’t have to just mean joke-telling, but can also include dry wit, illustration, or physical comedy. Here are four things that parents who raise funny kids do.

1. Laugh At Your Kid’s Jokes

Brandt sees humor as an indispensable tool in creating connection with kids, with attempts at humor typically serving as a bid for connection. Parents make these bids frequently when kids start to shut down emotionally, and kids make these bids when they feel like their parents aren’t paying enough attention to them or to elicit affirmation.

Laughing together with kids is a powerful shared experience that strengthens bonds. But kids don’t always have a good feel for when it’s appropriate to insert humor into a situation, and parents don’t always have the energy to engage in silliness.

When a child’s humorous bid for connection isn’t received well, Brandt suggests being honest with them about what happened and giving them a chance to make the bid again.

“If your kid tells you a joke, and you blow them off because you had something else to do, then come back 10 minutes later, or later that evening, or even the next day, and acknowledge that they tried to tell you a joke,” he says. “You can say, ‘I was so busy,’ or ‘I was stressed, and I didn't hear you. I didn't laugh, and I didn't give you the attention that you deserved. I'm really sorry about that. I would love to hear it now if you want to tell me again.’”

When parents are specific in apologies for their own behaviors — in this case, not listening to a joke — kids are better able to understand what happened in the previous moment and adopt tools that help them read the context of future interactions appropriately. Or, as one might say in comedy parlance, it might help them read the room.

2. Workshop Jokes Together

As breezy as the comedy specials on Netflix and HBO appear, even the best standup comedians don’t always nail bits on the first attempt. So when your kid tells a joke that absolutely bombs, they’re in good company.

But comedians don’t immediately chuck aside jokes that fall flat. Instead, when there’s a joke they believe in, they tinker with it until it hits. They run jokes by their friends, workshop them in small clubs, adjust their delivery, and hone in on what works over time. After all that, if the joke still doesn't land, they might eventually chuck it.

Parents can foster a similar creative process when their kid tells a joke that doesn’t make sense — which might be most of them for a while. It’s possible to affirm kids without invoking the lie that their unfunny joke is hilarious and without sending them to seedy comedy bars to develop their idea. Brandt suggests affirming creativity instead of quality and encouraging another attempt. Some of his favorite responses include:

  • “I wonder what you'll come up with next.”
  • “I can't wait to hear the next one.”
  • “Come back and tell me another version of that one tomorrow. I'm curious what else you can do with that!”

“If you get a sense of why they think the joke is funny, you can tell them to write it down,” Brandt says. “Or have them draw a picture of the joke. What you'll find is that the joke will evolve and change. That’s what makes humor great, right? You take a little idea, and the joke gets funnier as you build on it.”

3. Embrace Puns (AKA Dad Jokes)

The very best dad jokes elicit loud groans that kids use to suppress their chuckles — because even if they find the corniness funny, they certainly don’t want to admit it.

But in addition to bringing joy, dad jokes model important lessons for kids about trying new things, being okay with failure, and embracing differences — not to mention how to play with language. Brandt encourages parents to tell dad jokes — almost always a variation on the pun; a punchline that’s both super ridiculous and cerebrally obscure — frequently, and relish your kids’ reactions.

“When we tell dad jokes, we let our kids know that it’s okay to be nerdy. It's okay to take a shot at something. It's okay to do something that you think is funny, even if the rest of the world doesn't agree,” he says. “If you show them, hey, I can tell a joke that I think is funny, and I can enjoy myself even if nobody else does, then they’ll be more willing to be creative.”

One of the great things about dad jokes is that there are a seemingly unlimited number already in circulation, so other than checking your ego at the door and committing to a convincing delivery, it doesn’t take much time or effort to keep the groans rolling.

4. Kindly Let Kids Know When Jokes Cross The Line

As kids develop their sense of humor, they’ll undoubtedly drift to the dark side — or, conversely, get too deep on the fart side. It can be disappointing to hear a mean-spirited or tasteless joke escape your child’s lips and both infuriating and embarrassing when they deliver a racist, sexist, or homophobic punchline. But taking a beat to make it a teachable moment instead of hitting the panic button and forcefully shutting them down can help them become intuitively funny and kind instead of just shutting them up altogether.

Brandt tries to model emotional intelligence and help kids build empathy when they tell mean or offensive jokes. “Sometimes I can even acknowledge that yeah, the joke was funny. But it also could hurt someone's feelings,” he says. “Or I’ll say, ‘I wonder how that makes other people feel. It makes me feel a little bit yucky. I think it's something that hurt somebody's feelings.’”

Some jokes are irredeemable and need to be shelved altogether. But in other instances, it can be appropriate to encourage kids to think about if it’s possible to tell the joke in a way that wouldn’t make someone else feel bad. Even if there isn’t a way to make the joke appropriate, the process of thinking it through and imagining how the joke would make them feel if the tables were turned encourages kids to think and feel.

And all hope’s not lost if you lose your cool when your kid tells an offensive joke.

“It's okay to come back and calmly explain that the joke made you feel bad. Then give them a chance to tell the joke in another way or to tell you a different joke altogether,” Brandt says. “Because the lesson we’re trying to teach isn’t don't try to be funny. The lesson is be nice and funny.”