What Makes Kids Laugh

By Larry Horowitz on September 05, 2007

Children laugh at matters of the digestive system because such matters are their prime concern. Toilet training, wetting the bed and generally behaving politely put tremendous pressure on kids so they laugh in self-defence. Poo and pee become less frightening when lampooned.

Universally, children laugh when you satirize the things they’re supposed to take seriously. As kids grow a little older, social responsibilities become more complex than just hitting the toilet bowel. They find relief in laughing at the items in this minefield – burping, farting, picking their nose – all the things that
they must constantly be on guard against.

In truth, the kids are  therapeutically treating the apprehension they feel each day. They’re delighted and relieved when the authority figures in their lives or rules are parodied. Parody, defined as a burlesque version of a ‘sacred cow’, takes them on a roller coaster ride through a surreal, fun house version of what intimidates them. Do a silly impression of their teacher or pastor and see the results you get. Or when children take it upon themselves to ‘attack their dragons’, the laughter from other children signals an appreciation of the courage it takes to ‘fight back’.

There is a bonding that occurs among youngsters during parody caused by shared unspoken thoughts and sentiments. This shared ‘mental humour’ is as close as our species comes to telepathy. Nothing (other than grief, ironically) brings people closer together without physical
contact. Laughter is the most complex, audible signal humans emit.



LAUGHTER IS THE GREAT EQUALIZER
Laughter is one of the few things children do as well as adults. Infants laugh at funny noises or sounds like ‘Boo!’ There’s no skill needed to listen. Interpretation is irrelevant compared to surprise or contrasting pitches. Since kids have no real estate, no wealth, no political say and little knowledge, laughter lets them compete at a professional level with adults. As with annoying behaviour or breaking the law, laughter brings them attention. It’s a territorial signal that says, “Hey, I’m here. Don’t ignore me just because I’m not a significant member of society.”

Kids laugh because it feels good. When we humans solve a riddle or come to a significant conclusion, we unconsciously reward our efforts with laughter.

As they grow, children unravel another, then another, then another mystery, daily. What we describe as the innocent laughter of children is a natural response to the process of discovery.

LAUGHTER HAS MANY MEANINGS
Whether involuntary or intentional a laugh can mean many things. Like adults, children may laugh to convince those around them they understand what’s going on, even when they do not. It camouflages the embarrassing naivety of childhood. As kids develop, matters of reproduction and its enormous associated pressures make sophomoric and dirty humour the centre of their ‘amusement world’.

A comedic infancy often occurs in adults who start writing and performing comedy. Their early jokes are about excrement or other politically incorrect subjects. This parallels the material that entertains children. It’s essential that comedic creativity undergoes an evolution; a growth toward more sophisticated themes. Many comedians who skip this part of the growth process feel compelled to exhibit sophomoric content in their art at a later date. They experience a mid-life comedic crisis, of sorts. Perhaps there can never be maturity without immaturity first.

When I was a summer camp storyteller in my teens, scary tales were my specialty. Laughter always accompanied the relief following sudden fright. It was indicative of the purging of anxiety. In my later career as a stand-up comic, I came to know that shock and surprise were also major triggers to laughter in adults.

Laughter is a response to many needs. It has purpose. We actually possess muscles in our abdomen that are only activated during laughter. We’re supposed to laugh. We need to laugh. We were built to laugh. We practise doing it as children because it’s implicit to a healthy existence.



BABY: Babies laugh at funny sounds and when they’re surprised. As babies grow a little older, their visual senses develop so they react to contrasting facial variations. They savour the sensations of different colours and respond audibly.
TODDLER: Potty training and disapproval by their caregivers are the biggest pressures, so children find relief in making fun of the subject.
SCHOOL: As social responsibilities increase, kids find relief in gross body humour like burping and farting. Parodies of authority figures invite shared hilarity at this stage.
TWEENS: Older kids begin to ponder the nature of their existence. Laughing at all the stuff they are restricted from seeing (nudity, sex, violence) downplays the anxiety they feel about not quite understanding what it’s all about. So, they make jokes about sexual organs, breasts, killing, mutilation, crippled people, race, religion...all the stuff that they can’t get an immediate grip on.
TEENS: Young adults develop a stake in the world around them. Their sexual identities begin to solidify, yet another difficult and mysterious stage in development. They make light of sexism, criminal behaviour and matters of an anti-authoritarian nature. Sexual identity signals maturity, in their minds, and the general revolt begins. They laugh at former role models and mock convention. PC



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