Family Life


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Why making time for humour can help you be a better parent

It’s Saturday night. A crush of parents waits in rows, faces flushed, first drinks in hand, all slightly delirious at having managed to get out of the house for a few hours. By day, the Lazy Daisy Café in Toronto’s east end, serves locavore delights to breastfeeding mums and hipster dads surveying iPhones and toddlers. But tonight the place is bathed in candlelight and shadows. The happy buzz grows louder as local funny woman Erin Keaney takes to the stage.

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A few years ago, Erin, a mother of two and writer/producer at, started this unique and popular Toronto comedy extravaganza run for, about and by parents. (She also made a splash when her “Muffintop” rap video went viral on YouTube).

Called TIME OUT!, Erin’s shows started as an occasional thing. Today her east end version runs monthly and she’s also expanded to several other city venues. At these small caf. stages, Erin regularly attracts some of Canada’s comedy heavyweights including Elvira Kurt, Seán Cullen and Sandra Shamas.

What has Erin tapped into? Why do people come back month after month? “Parents are so starved to get out they’re almost hysterical. It’s like they’re a little high,” she jokes.

You could take this at face value. Parents do need to get out once in a while. But talk to anyone here and you realize there’s something special going on. The word catharsis springs to mind.

Toronto city councilor and mother of two Mary-Margaret McMahon attended her first TIME OUT! show during a tough patch at the office – when the Rob Ford story was breaking. Mary-Margaret adored Erin’s show and continues to attend almost every month. As she wrote to Erin: “Forget about OHIP, we now have you and your talented troop of crazy comics! I have not laughed that hard in years!”

Erin sees the success linked to two things: the stresses and impossible expectations plaguing modern parenthood, plus, the power of laughter. Speaking to the stress, Erin says, “All my fears and anxieties for my kids come out through my comedy and I’m not afraid to talk about it. I don’t care. It makes me feel good to talk about it.”

Of our perfectionism, Erin says, “We really are precious today about our children and how perfect and amazing they are. What has made us do this? I always joke about how it’s almost a one-up thing that parents do with each other. A parent will say ‘Well my son is reading at a Grade 7 level.’ And I’m like, ‘But your son’s in a corner talking to himself. Maybe you need to get him out and socialize that child!’”

“But,” Erin adds, “I am not excluding myself from this crazy group. We all get sucked into it. So if you can turn it around and laugh at yourself or make fun of yourself, then people in the audience can go, ‘Oh my gosh, she thinks the exact same way I do and I thought I was completely insane.’”

This kind of humour, says Erin, connects people. “I just think the more honest you are about how you’re failing makes you a more likable, sympathetic person in this world, and then there’s somebody else that goes, ‘I got your back. Let’s hold hands and go through this together.’”

In The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach, University of Western Ontario psychology professor Rod A. Martin writes, “Humour is fundamentally a social phenomenon.” Shared laughter makes us feel so good. But after we have kids, we often forget and get so dead serious. All that worrying over the mortgage, the consistency of the baby’s poo, where to buy a good lice comb – it can drain the humour from our very souls.

While some might argue here that parenting is serious work, American psychologist Steve Wilson says humour is, too. It’s not trivial or juvenile, he says, and parents should really value it more. “The research, the science of laughter is remarkable in terms of what it’s telling us is happening in our bodies. When you laugh, your brain chemistry changes, it’s as if every system in your body gets switched on to working in the healthiest way it can.”

So is laughter truly the ‘best medicine’? University of Alberta professor Billy Strean says that while the research is not exhaustive, it all “tends to show humour has these sorts of affects of relieving stress.” Billy points to a new study by Lee Berk, lead researcher and associate professor at Loma Linda University, Calif. Lee found that joyful laughter produces the same brain wave frequencies in people as they’d experience in a true meditative state. He also found that just anticipating laughter lowered three stress hormones in his subjects.

And as Steve Wilson says, “When you’re under stress and tension it’s not good for you. It interferes with your immune system working. You know, if you have a lot of stress for a long period of time, you’re more likely to get sick.”

But aside from physical health, if you take a big fat joke and dissect it, you’ll also find some amazing impacts on our emotional wellbeing. For example, “Part of what makes great stand-up comedy,” says Billy, “is the making manifest things that are very commonly shared but often not spoken about.” Consider our occasional dark feelings about our little darlings. “Probably most parents at some moment, say something to themselves like, ‘I could just kill that kid,’” says Billy. “Not like you would act on it, but you have a feeling of frustration or something. And when that kind of thing gets addressed in stand-up comedy there’s a particular effect and release.”

Sometimes, when parents are knee deep in what Erin calls “that puddle of insanity that’s happening, that’s making you sweat” what we desperately need is perspective. Humour can give us this psychological distance, explains Rod Wilson. “If we can walk around that situation, and look at all sides of it, we can be open to it, there may be a side that’s not as serious.”

This power to defuse can extend to unfunny realities like prejudice and racism, too. Mark James Heath, a Toronto comic and father of two, says his “comedy is mostly about stuff I am afraid of or uncomfortable about, things like racism, poverty, and violence. Talking about parenting is a way for me to talk about my fears and concerns in a way that the crowd can relate to.”

When Mark, who is black, recently entertained the (it must be said) predominantly white TIME OUT! crowd, he broached the topic of racism: “When I am alone with my children with no mother or grandmother with me… I get the suspicion that society is grading me on a stereotypical black man curve. People are a little too excited to see me taking care of my own biological children…I get praise for the most simple of parenting tasks. People see me pushing my kids on the swing they come up to me moved to tears as if they have seen the ghost of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘That is amazing. Morgan Freeman should play you in a movie, sir.’”

Billy says research shows that humour, used positively, enhances communication and connection. Let’s look at the family context for example. If parents are trying to get through to their kids, Strean says humour really lightens the message.

In fact, Rod positions humour as a wonderful gift we can share with our kids. “Encourage the laughter, enjoy the laughter.” (For details on how to nurture your child’s sense of humour, see sidebar above.)

In my own family, I’ve recently had a chance to witness the power of humour in a whole new way. This past April my son, nine at the time, was at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children undergoing heart surgery. Diagnosed at age seven with a heart condition that causes occasional arrhythmias, this procedure was a second attempt to resolve Zachary’s condition. The preceding months had been difficult. Zach’s symptoms had suddenly worsened and he was missing a lot of school and sports as a result. The surgery, while minimally invasive, was tricky and took about five hours. To our great joy all went smoothly. However late that night, we hit a wall. Euphoria transformed into unspeakable fatigue. My son turned grumpy, then he began to lose it. “It’s like a knife in my hand, take it out!” he yelled and started pulling at his IV needle. “I hate my life!” Every time he rolled around on his bed, heart monitors screeched, nurses kept calling. By this point my muscles were so tight I thought my head would snap off.

But as you do, I tried one more thing. I asked Zach if maybe he’d like to watch a movie. Tentatively, from our stack, he chose a funny one, Billy Madison, starring Adam Sandler. What happened next still feels like a miracle. Slowly, Zachary began to settle. The tears dried, he stopped pawing at his IV needle, the monitors stilled and then I heard it: giggles. “Mom, mom, come see this!” Carefully I crawled into the hospital bed beside my baby and watched what I can only describe as Grade 4 boy humour. Zachary laughed, and laughed – I tell you no lie – for four hours straight. At one point I drifted off and woke again to hear him still dissolving in giggles. That laughter was the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. It told me my son was putting the terror behind him, going back to just being a kid again. It washed over me in warm and gentle waves. My muscles began releasing, and I felt hope return. To be honest, I’m not the biggest Sandler fan, but during those dark hours, I sensed in his comedy a spark of the divine.

Many poets and writers have struggled trying to describe the magic of laughter. Anne Lamott calls it “carbonated holiness”. Victor Borge wrote, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” But for me, these words from Robert Frost capture it best –and probably apply to many other parents as well: “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.”

How to nurture your child’s sense of humour

American psychologist Steve Wilson says when conditions are right, most babies begin to smile and giggle at around 40 days of age. How do you keep that going? How do you encourage your child to find the funny in a society that still “shushes” kids’ laughter a lot? Here are Steve’s tips:

  • Play peek-a-boo with infants – this tickles them as funny.
  • With older kids, graduate to puns, knock-knock jokes, etc.
  • Use “funny literacy”. In the library, try sending kids to the humour section.
  • Have kids create a scrapbook of things they find funny. “That helps them feel confident in that part of their identity. ‘Gee I’m a person who can be funny!’”
  • Teach kids values. Wilson suggests asking: “How would you explain the difference between laughing with somebody and laughing at somebody?”
  • Cultivate sensitivity. He advises teaching the “five-minute rule about humour, which is never poke fun at anything that another person couldn’t change in five minutes.”
  • Be careful of negative humour such as sarcasm.
  • Show your kids that you’re cultivating your own sense of humour – watch funny movies, and joke

Toronto-based freelancer Connie Jeske Crane considers herself the serious one in the family and greatly appreciates the comic relief served up daily by her husband and 10-year-old son.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2014.

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