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A sense of humor is just common sense dancing. -CLIVE JAMES, AUSTRALIAN NOVELIST AND POET AND BRITISH TV HOST
THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING HUMOR is to realize that it is simply an enigma wrapped in a conundrum, disguised as a puzzle. What could be clearer than that? Here, I intend to unwrap it and expose it. Later on, I'll help you develop a healthy sense of humor in your child. This chapter first covers the great debate over whether a child's sense of humor is inborn or whether it can be developed through training and experiences in a humor-rich environment. It then discusses what humor is and what we mean by a sense of humor. Next, it briefly reviews a few of the major theories of humor that philosophers and psychologists have developed over the last few hundred years. The chapter then quickly explores the differences in humor appreciation between the two genders and, finally, it reviews the many advantages that kids will enjoy when they have a good sense of humor. So, let's begin.
THE GREAT NATURE VS. NURTURE DEBATE
Is a child's sense of humor an innate trait or is it learned? Can it be enhanced by relevant experiences? These are just a couple ofthe fundamental "nature versus nurture" questions about basic human characteristics that have been debated for centuries. Those who favor the "nature" position believe that most human behavioral characteristics are due to our inherited genetic traits, that is, what our parents have passed on to us biologically. Those who favor the "nurture" position agree that most of our physical characteristics are due to our biological inheritances, but our psychological characteristics such as personality, temperament, and sense of humor arise from our unique learning experiences from birth onward.
One of the best scientific methods used to sort out the question of nature versus nurture is research conducted on twins. This type of study allows scientists to calculate the relative degrees of influence that genetics and environment have on a particular behavior or human characteristic. Our special interest, of course, is in the personality characteristic of sense of humor. In this model, researchers compare the responses of laughter or funniness ratings to the same humor stimuli by pairs of identical twins (those who share 100 percent of their genes) and fraternal twins (those who share on average 50 percent of their genes).
Lynn Cherkas and colleagues at St. Thomas' Hospital in London used this sound twin research model to determine whether a person's sense of humor is influenced more by genetics or more by environmental experiences. To do so, they presented a series of Gary Larson's The Far Side cartoons to 127 pairs of twins. These particular cartoons were chosen because it was observed that The Far Side series tends to produce a wide range of responses, from hysterical laughter to no reaction at all.
In this study, the twins (some identical, some fraternal) ranged in age from twenty to seventy-five. Placed in separate rooms, each twin rated the funniness of five Far Side cartoons. If the identical twins' ratings were more similar to each other than those of the fraternal twins, it could be reasonably concluded that their senses of humor had been more influenced by genetics (nature) than by the environment (nurture).
Interestingly, this research team had expected to discover that genetics plays a significant role in determining an individual's sense of humor. Thus, the team was quite surprised by its findings: The correlations of the identical twins' funniness ratings of the five cartoons were not greater than those of the fraternal twins. The Cherkas research team thereby credited the twins' upbringing, or their shared environment, as the critical determining factor in developing their senses of humor. ("Shared environment" refers to the twins' experiences within their family, influences from peers, and formal education.) The researchers rather reluctantly concluded that the appreciation of the cognitive forms of humor, as uniquely displayed in Larson's cartoons, show "no significant contribution from genetic factors." I heartily agree and proclaim that a child's sense of humor does indeed come primarily from Mom and Dad, but not from their eggs and sperm! My position in the great nature versus nurture debate is this: No one is born with a great sense of humor, a poor sense of humor, or even no sense of humor.
Clearly, a sense of humor is learned, just like most other skills we possess-riding a bike, swimming the backstroke, being polite, or learning to write. Just because most sixty-five-year-olds cannot surf the Internet and most six-year-olds can do so with ease does not mean that, due to some random electronic mutations, kids in the twenty-first century are born possessing full computer literacy. Kids simply acquire those skills very early in life at school and at home. And they can acquire humor-making and humor-appreciating skills the same way.
Parents are the most important influences on their children's personalities. Whatever genetic factors potentially influence the personality equation have already been contributed at the critical moment of conception. From that point on, it is too late to offer any new and insightful recommendations on how to conceive a humorous child. All of the environmental influences on the newborn child can now begin.
Comic playwright Neil Simon once confessed, "No one has yet determined, to my satisfaction, what elements of nature, genetics, and environment have to combine to form a man or woman with a keen sense of humor.... Poverty and bigotry, plus at least a half-dozen factors more, might start to explain where the comic spirit is born. In my case you would certainly have to add 'encouragement.'" Life experiences are clearly very important in developing a child's humorous outlook on life. When a child's humor development is "encouraged," to use Simon's term-that is, praised and appreciated by the world-it will flourish.
Now that we know that humor is part of the nurturing process, let's look at how humor and a sense of humor are defined.
WHAT EXACTLY IS HUMOR AND A SENSE OF HUMOR?
Let's start by defining humor in a very general sense: Humor is the quality that makes something funny. As for the sense of humor, we might think of it as our sixth sense. A sense of humor can be just as useful as the other five senses-seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. We cannot assume that someone who doesn't think a particular joke is funny lacks this sixth sense. It's important to understand that people with a well-developed sense of humor differ in the kinds of humor they enjoy. Some children (and adults) think that clowns are funny, while some people find nothing funny about them. Is a cream pie smashed in the face funny? Yes? What if it happened to you? Maybe then it wouldn't be so funny. And what happens if you get angry with the person who smashed the pie in your face? There's a very good chance you'll be accused of having no sense of humor!
Perhaps we should be more explicit about the term "sense of humor." Of course, theorists have offered many formal and complicated definitions. Researchers in humor have produced many technical descriptions of the sense of humor in terms of test-score profiles, self-definitions, and ratings of predetermined humor stimuli, such as cartoons and jokes. Most of these definitions will not be of much use to us because our concern in this book is more practical: how to develop a sense of humor in children. For our purposes, a "sense of humor" is simply a person's propensity for being amused and amusing others. That amusement may or may not result in overt laughter.
Although the foregoing definition should be enough to get you started, the work of personality researchers Willibald Ruch and Franz-Josef Hehl may help you to better recognize and develop the different aspects of your child's sense of humor. Hehl and Ruch subdivided the overall concept of a sense of humor into four facets, or aspects. Each facet may serve as a separate goal for you in your humor-development exercises with your child.
The first facet of the sense of humor, according to Ruch and Hehl, is called comprehension. Comprehension refers to how we see and understand humor stimuli. When a comedian tells a joke or a friend poses a riddle, does the child "get" it? Is the short story of the joke understood as something funny, or at least as having been intended to be funny?
The researchers refer to the second facet of humor as appreciation, that is, does the child actually experience the humor message as humorous? Is that humor stimulus, be it a funny story, cartoon, or clown, enjoyed?
The third facet of the sense of humor is expression, which refers to the quality and quantity of a reaction to the humor stimuli. Most people will credit someone with a "great" sense of humor simply if that person laughs loudly and frequently. Do we understand, appreciate, and enjoy the joke, but show no outward indication that we do? Or do we merely smile in response? In fact, the possible range of reactions could extend from no overt response whatsoever to some chuckling all the way to loud and hearty laughter to the point of tears, side aches, and literally falling down. Prolonged strong laughter can actually weaken your knees.
Finally, Ruch and Hehl include creation of humor as the fourth facet, and an important one at that. Humor making involves changing neutral stimuli (events, observations, or words) into funny stimuli. Producing humor can be a rather difficult assignment requiring intelligence, creativity, and sensitivity to various social concerns about the appropriateness of the humor.
As with any other ability, not all children will be equally good at each of these facets. That is fine and expected. It is certainly easier for most people to comprehend and appreciate humor than to create it. That is why audiences easily outnumber comedy writers and performers. It is best to follow your child's lead and note what he enjoys most within the overall realm of humor, in terms of these four facets and the specific types and content of his most preferred humor.
THE QUALITIES OF A HUMOROUS PERSPECTIVE ON LIFE
A child with a well-developed sense of humor will have acquired a humorous perspective on life-that is, the child will have become a joy tracker or humor spotter in everyday life. Humor is shown in many ways beyond the repetition of rehearsed jokes and riddles. It eventually becomes a frame of mind, a point of view in the child-a point of view that will be carried into adulthood.
According to clinical psychologist Harvey Mindess, there are six specific qualities of a humorous perspective: flexibility, spontaneity, unconventionality, shrewdness, playfulness, and humility. Dr. Mindess has written about the characteristics of humor and has advocated its use in the practice of psychotherapy for over three decades. We can benefit from his knowledge. Let's take a close look at these six qualities with some illustrative examples.
1. Flexibility-a cognitive ability to examine things from different sides other than the most obvious. Double-meaning words are keys to funniness in verbal humor, especially puns-the humorous use of alternate word meanings and sounds. "How did Samson die? From fallen arches." Flexibility can be a key to visual humor, too. For example, sticking a banana in your ear or talking to your shoe as if it were a telephone requires a cognitive shift to a different and silly way to use these items.
2. Spontaneity-the ability to move instantly and unpredictably from one mood or form of thinking to another. It is impossible to teach or command spontaneity, of course, but this quality will follow as your child becomes more comfortable and skilled in the use of verbal humor. For example, when something unexpected happens (something you can't prepare for), such as a sudden loud noise, spontaneous humor would be to say something like, "Was that the stock market falling?" Or "Did a rich lady drop the stone from her ring?"
3. Unconventionality-the ability to get beyond the standard most widely accepted values and norms of the culture. Humor relies on identifying the unexpected and often the unaccepted social behaviors or verbal comments. That is why children's unabashedly blunt comments are funny, when the same words from an adult would be socially unacceptable. Comedian Steven Wright's anecdote reflects the humorous quality of unconventionality: "I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet. So I said, 'Got any shoes you're not using?'"
4. Shrewdness-the refusal to believe that anyone, including yourself, really is what he or she seems to be. For example, comedian Roseanne claims that her kids love her because she is like the mother they never had. The humor maker is the first to acknowledge that all of us are pretenders in one way or another. We may mask our fears with humor, and we may make fun of our own shortcomings: "I'm laughing at your mistakes because I've done the same dumb things."
5. Playfulness-seeing life as a game to be played for fun and not as a contest to be won. The real purpose of life is enjoyment, not achievement of money or possessions. The winner is not the one who dies with the most toys; it is the one who has lived life with the greatest of joy. He who laughs lasts.
6. Humility-the ability not to take oneself too seriously and to recognize the meaninglessness of even your most profound thoughts. Those who express their sense of humor are always taking some risk-of appearing foolish, of not being taken seriously under any circumstances, of being laughed at rather than laughed with. But the rewards of laughter and closer personal relationships are so great and so probable that they are definitely worth the social risks.
Based on his long career of applying humor in his therapy practice, Dr. Mindess has provided us with a helpful cluster of personal qualities that he has found to contribute to a person's sense of humor. He regards our sense of the ridiculous as an antidote to emotional distress and "a coping mechanism of the very highest caliber." These six qualities become a part of a person's overall humorous attitude and outlook on life. In some ways, these characteristics sound like the very opposite of what society traditionally promotes as desirable traits in the mature and responsible adult. The spontaneous, the unconventional, the playful person really is not very much like the stereotypical sober and serious citizen who is "all business." Which of these role models will you choose for your child? Which kind of person would you yourself most enjoy being with?
THEORIES OF HUMOR
The scientific study of humor has been likened to dissecting a frog to understand how it lives and functions. In the process, both humor and the frog are destroyed. We will try very hard to avoid that outcome here. We're only going to cover a few theories of humor, but believe it or not, there are more than one hundred separate theories of humor. Some are quite elaborate, and some consist of just a few sentences describing one type of humor. Some are merely various philosophers' musings on humor and comedy as unique qualities to be found only in human animals. Other theories are more complex, truly esoteric, and not fun to read.
The three most widely accepted theories by current humor researchers are the Superiority Theory, the Relief From Tension Theory, and the Incongruity Theory, each of which is discussed in some relatively painless detail below. Following that, we'll take a very quick look at some other theories of humor.
The Superiority Theory
The Superiority Theory suggests that situations or comments become humorous to us because we end up feeling better about ourselves when some misfortune or degradation happens to others. That is why it seems funny when we see a pompous man slip and fall on a banana peel-it is happening to someone else. We are not adversely affected because we are in the superior position. Of course, it would not be funny if the person falling were a frail elderly gentleman. Another aspect of the Superiority Theory is that children will laugh at any evidence that they have grown up a bit and are now unlike the younger child in a story or movie who makes foolish mistakes or gets confused or acts silly. They end up feeling superior to their younger selves.
Excerpted from kids who laugh by Louis R. Franzini Copyright © 2002 by Louis Franzini . Excerpted by permission.
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