Funny development: As powerless little creatures who can’t even speak well (if at all) or walk well (if at all), “they love knowing the answer. And it’s even sweeter—and funnier—when they know you’re wrong,” says Los Angeles pediatrician Harvey Karp, the creator of the book and DVD The Happiest Toddler on the Block ($15, amazon.com).
Their comedy hero: You.
Comedy gold: Adults making fools of themselves, or what Karp calls “playing the boob.” Scour the kitchen for a sippy cup that’s clearly in your hand; put a (clean) diaper on your head like it’s the hat of a royal-wedding attendee.
Of course, toddlers are also suckers for “a zerbert [the classic raspberry] to the belly or other kinds of tickling,” Karp says. (Even better: Let them tickle you.) Father of two Bert Kreischer, who specializes in wacky antics as Bert the Conqueror on the Travel Channel, swears by “the soft tickle—usually right above the knee or at the diaper line—along with a funny face.”
If you have a tot who is already grouchy, however, be warned that the cheer-up-and-giggle campaign can go horribly wrong, says Ann Pleshette Murphy, a psychologist and the author of The 7 Stages of Motherhood ($14, amazon.com): “Even at such a young age, trying to cajole them can backfire.” Like tiny kings, toddlers demand to be taken seriously. “If they think you’re making light of what has upset them,” says Murphy, “they’ll end up with even deeper scowls.” (And howls.)
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Funny development: By age three or four, kids understand the social aspect of humor—that a person can be in on a joke. “Laughing is their way of establishing ‘We’re together, right?’” says Karp. Slapstick is a big hit, he says, because it’s “entry-level humor—they laugh and you laugh.”
Their comedy heroes: Cookie Monster, the Three Stooges.
Comedy gold: Sitting on them (gently!) and then asking if anyone has seen them. This way, they’re in on the joke (and under the joke). “Starting with preschool—and going all the way up to certain men—this kind of physical comedy is always appreciated,” says Murphy. The sit-on-the-kid trick also adheres to another rule of funny: “It’s a violation of what’s expected,” says Karp. Mo Willems, the author of such kid thigh-slappers as Knuffle Bunny ($16, amazon.com), recalls, “My daughter Trixie was a fan of a random string of words phrased as a joke: What did the window say to the flowerpot? I’m wearing shoes!”
According to David Rakoff, a humorist and the author of Half Empty ($15, amazon.com), to a little kid there’s nothing more unexpected than seeing a grown-up fake-weeping. “Oh, they love it when you cry,” he says. “I’ve done it a few times, and the kids still talk about it and laugh years later.” And for an easy chuckle-fest, don’t underestimate the power of bathroom humor: The Daily Show’s Samantha Bee, a mother of three and the author of I Know I Am, But What Are You? ($15, amazon.com), suggests simply “replacing key words in your preschooler’s favorite song with the word pee or poo.” Row, row, row your poo, gently down the—see? You know you’re laughing.
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Funny development: Five- through eight-year-olds are avid collectors—of dinosaur facts, Silly Bandz, knock-knock jokes. Plus, they love wordplay and can appreciate some nuance, says Murphy. (And by “nuance” she means groaningly bad puns.)
Their comedy heroes: An orange you’re glad isn’t a banana, the chicken who crossed the road, contestants on Wipeout.
Comedy gold: Friend-for-life territory? A fart joke or two. “A 50-cent whoopee cushion provided my older daughter countless hours of enjoyment as I prepared meals, cleaned, or fed the baby,” recalls Bee. “It was the sound track of my life for an entire month.” (This is an age group that doesn’t grasp the concept of a tired joke.) When all else fails, execute an elaborate pratfall: Kids this age love physical humor the way Ricky loves Lucy. “You have to plan ahead a few paces, but kids adore it when you pretend to crack your head open on a street sign,” says Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr, a father of two and the author of The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide for Watching Together ($18, amazon.com). “For the first few seconds, they think you’ve really hurt yourself, which makes it even funnier.”
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Funny development: As they enter tweendom, kids are more inclined to choose their friends over their families, says Karp, which makes them a tough room—parents have to work extra hard to get that laugh.
Their comedy heroes: Their BFFs, obvs. And OMG, r u kidding? Def. Not. U!
Comedy gold: If they would rather be with their peers, try telling them stories about yourself when you were their age (but for heaven’s sake, don’t kill it with a “Why, when I was your age…”). Bee suggests “busting out old photos of yourself that your husband forbids you to expunge. Allow them to relish ‘You, the Future Mrs. Jon Bon Jovi’ or ‘Satin Pants You.’ Then let them read some of your most earnest free-form poetry from that time. You may end up in tears, but it will be worth it.”
As Murphy sees it, telling them stories of your own awkwardness, boyfriendlessness, flat-chestedness, or all-of-the-aboveness “not only entertains them but also reminds them that they’re not the only ones who are vulnerable.” Just don’t give them the idea that it’s OK to laugh at other people (though you probably don’t need an expert to remind you). It could signal that bullying behavior is acceptable, adds Murphy. “But when you teach them how to cultivate jokes and humor about themselves,” she says, “you’re giving them a lifelong gift.”