Since the invention of the classic “I’ve got your nose” bit, the world has witnessed the escalation of adult-on-child pranks. The internet and the like button have only sped that up. Today, YouTube and Facebook are thick with footage of parents messing with their kid: by breaking electronics, jumping out at them with frightening masks, or pretending to have eaten all their candy. These pranks are designed to attract the attention of strangers and in the worst cases they do just that. Recently, the couple behind the YouTube channel DaddyOFive lost custody of two children after filming themselves screaming expletives at them for things they had not done and in one instance pushing a child violently against a bookcase. This event prompted the appropriate opprobrium, but, for many parents, it also prompted a very unsilly question: Can I play a prank on my kid without inflicting real damage?
“The positive element in playing tricks or pranks is the humor, the element of surprise and the shared laughter,” says Dr. Larry Cohen, the play therapist author of Opposite of Worry. “What we have to look out for is if it’s undermining a sense of security, safety, and trust.”
That doesn’t mean that playing tricks on a kid should be verboten. To the contrary, pranks and tricks can be a meaningful and productive part of play. They can also be funny for all concerned. The question, Cohen quickly adds, is who exactly is concerned. “The ones you see on the web are for the parent’s entertainment and audience entertainment at the child’s expense,” he explains. “It’s really taking this vulnerability that they have and abusing it.”
Cohen admits that everyone has to draw their own line, to determine what they think will engage their child without sowing the seeds of distrust. But he’s also pretty damn sure that no adult should ever make fun of a kid to make another adult laugh. That’s called punching down.
A good prank should consider the experience of the kid being pranked. It the kid won’t take the bait, that’s a bad prank. If the kid will take the bait, but might struggle to recover from the reveal, that’s also a bad prank. A good prank pushes a kid to adjust expectations then re-adjust expectation then re-re-adjust expectations without having that final step be an act of disappointment. A good prank doesn’t highlight dad’s carelessness or mom’s sarcasm — it should highlight the ability of the adults involved to sympathize with the child. Good pranks are about being on the same page emotionally. They bring people together.
Bad ones do the opposite.
“This is horrifying to me,” says Cohen. “They’re having a genuine feeling of sadness and betrayal and we’re using that as something to laugh about. That’s the opposite of tuning in.”
Cohen notes that dads can be particularly bad at anticipating kids’ reactions. There’s a cultural reason for this: Current men were boys at a time when it was common for adults to tell boys to “shake it off.” That phrase is no longer popular outside of Taylor Swift songs, but it has left its mark. It is often the case that cultural norm, not malice, lead to harmful decisions and behaviors.
“Men have this tendency where we can go that spot, when children are having strong feelings,” says Cohen. “We can humiliate them. We don’t mean to, but it’s what happened to us.”
He notes that the unspoken goal of some pranks is to toughen kids up and quickly reiterates that kids don’t need to be toughened up. Toughness isn’t a fault, but the inability to trust others absolutely is. “Really strong and independent kids who can handle tough things know they’re not alone in the world,” Cohen says.
Cohen has an unexpected strategy for guaranteeing that what should be an innocent joke doesn’t have a negative impact on a young child. “Include the child in planning,” he says. He acknowledges that planning a surprise with the person you hope to surprise sounds ludicrous. But children are easily delighted and surprised, even by “open secrets.” Just think of how terrible toddlers are at hide-and-seek.
So Cohen suggests parents talk about the “scary surprise game” they want to play. After explaining what the game looks like, they can ask the kid if it sounds like fun and follow their lead by tuning into the reaction. Parents can also use a loud “stage whisper” to narrate a playful inner monolog while their kid observes them pulling the prank. This is essentially adopting the kid’s way of playing and it doesn’t diminish their humor or delight in the situation.
“It’s an odd way to play a prank,” Cohen acknowledges. “I get that. But it really works. The child has the same amount of joy, and more because they don’t have the fear and distrust.”
One of the advantages of this approach is that it indoctrinates kids into a culture of good-humored joking as they get older, allowing parents to up the ante over time and encourage playful retribution. Pranks, after all, are fun and fun is–in a number of demonstrable ways–good.