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Kids these days

What’s So Funny?

Testing limits through humor

Babies put shoes on their heads and laugh. Toddlers delight in calling cows cars, and preschoolers think asking for peanut butter and potato sandwiches is hilarious. Some preschoolers also take pleasure in telling scatological jokes (“You poo in your pants”), foreshadowing the distinctly iconoclastic humor of adolescents. At every stage, kids’ hilarity arises from breaking rules of some kind—rules of custom, propriety, or language. What ensues is a more solid understanding of those rules, which means a more solid understanding of the world.

Which aspects of the world children focus on changes with age. Consider favorite jokes of school-age children—for example, “Why don’t oysters share?” / “Because they are shellfish” or “Call me a cab” / “You’re a cab.” Researchers have tried out these old chestnuts on preschoolers and found that they laugh even when the joke is told wrong, as in “Call a cab for me” / “You’re a cab.” But older children are a tougher crowd. They’ll laugh at “You’re a cab” only if it’s aptly preceded by “Call me a cab.” In other words, preschoolers howl at the simple absurdity of a person being called a cab, while the more sophisticated fourth- and fifth-graders hold out for subtleties like a clever breach of grammatical logic.

School-age children also sing the time-honored songs about annihilating teachers (“Teacher hit me with a ruler so I met her at the door with a loaded .44”) and revel in the slapstick antics of Nickelodeon, where the pie (or slime) ends up on parents. And they have a profound appreciation for movies like Home Alone, where the real dopes are the robbers, and the real genius is “just a kid.” What we’re seeing here is that the iconoclasm in their humor is starting to mature, driven by their growing desire to set themselves apart from their elders and make their own way in life.

In middle school and high school, kids crave even greater independence from adults, and their humor reflects this. Hence the rising popularity of the inside joke, the kind that only a select group of friends gets—as when girls decide to have secret names. (One group took the first letter of their last names, added “oty”, and formed an “oty” club. Initiates—Boty, Soty, Foty, and so forth—would always giggle when using the names in public.) By this time, iconoclastic humor is in full flower, and teenagers of every era have been known to indulge. For instance, forced to attend the Little Pigeon Creek Baptist Church, the adolescent Abe Lincoln would climb onto a tree stump afterward and parody the minister. His friends were delighted, the adults around him were dismayed, and the tradition of hand-wringing over the next generation was upheld. Lincoln, of course, eventually became one of our most upright moral leaders, his boyhood humor notwithstanding. In parodying the minister, he may well have been seeing just how far he could push the limits of decorum. He may not have been ridiculing the man’s actual words at all.

Chances are, many young people today are going through the same kind of learning process when they watch popular movies such as the ones in the Harold and Kumar series (there are two so far). On the surface these films appear to be racist. But look deeper, and you’ll find that they are actually making fun of racism, although not everyone might be expected to pick up on that message. For example, in the first Harold and Kumar film, the lazy Indian-American genius, Kumar, blows an interview with a medical school dean when he answers his cell phone and chats with the caller about where to get marijuana. Adolescents (and hip adults) appreciate the scene as a knock on a stereotype (“Asians as hard workers”).

Trafficking in such humor requires knowing when it’s acceptable and when it’s not. The humor, it turns out, is not just in the joke, but also in the joke’s context: how it’s told, and to whom, and under what circumstances. Or to put it another way, telling iconoclastic jokes tests our ability to read our audience and rule out anything that might be hurtful. This calls for a sensitivity that adolescents typically lack, and developing it is an enormous maturational achievement. But those who do develop it are rewarded with one of life’s more pleasurable ways to embrace good values and reject bad ones: making fun of both.

W. GEORGE SCARLETT is deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and lead author of the book Children’s Play. His book Approaches to Behavior and Classroom Management, is due out later this year.

  © 2008 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155