Watching your child’s sense of humour develop is one of the most rewarding bits of parenting. Seeing your kid in fits of giggles and witnessing the cogs turning as they try to be funny themselves – even in the most rudimentary of ways, like declaring they are their teddy bear and their teddy bear is them – is addictive in the most adorable way.
But, as anyone who has found themselves trying to entertain a room full of kids knows, it’s more complicated than it seems. The biggest mistake is thinking, “Well, they’re kids, they’ll laugh at anything,” according to former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, in his book How To Make Children Laugh.
They’re children, not stupid. But what’s the science behind kids’ laughter. We asked a selection of experts and comedy writers for insight into the inner workings of these adorably giggly young minds.
Never underestimate babies
“To make a baby laugh, take them seriously,” says Dr Caspar Addyman, a blue-haired psychologist who studies baby laughter as part of the Infant Lab at Goldsmiths, and is even writing a book about it. It’s all about connections, he says. And if you want to connect with babies properly, let them lead the interaction. See what they’re interested in “rather than what a lot of people do when they encounter a baby, which is to wave things in their face”.
Addyman has done all sorts of experiments with babies’ giggles, including an attempt to see whether laughter is contagious in babies, which involved him and a parent sitting opposite a kid laughing their heads off. (If you have a baby, there’s a web-based experiment looking for volunteers – so get involved!)
“Anything and everything might make a baby laugh, but the important thing often isn’t the what, but the who,” says Dr Addyman. “One of the big goals of being a baby is understanding the world, and it’s a scary, complicated place. The hardest thing in the whole world is: what do other people do? How do people work?
“If you’re presenting them with that in a safe way and you’re taking the time to take them seriously, then they can relax. There’s a definite natural exuberance in babies and children, and that’s when it’ll come out as laughter – they’re enjoying themselves and they’ll show you that.”
As adults, we associate laughter with humour, and humour with subverted expectations – but baby laughter isn’t about finding something funny. The real root cause of it is human connection, says Addyman.
Have fun. Humour is a social interaction
“Laughter is contagious behaviour, like yawning, blinking, scratching or coughing,” says Professor Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at University College London, whose job includes researching laughter. What a life.
“One of the interesting things with babies is, if the baby laughs, generally a parent will laugh, but if a parent laughs, the baby doesn’t,” notes Scott.
Try to think of a fun, playful activity. As well as being someone your baby or child can trust, introduce a social element. “We love humour and jokes and comedy, but most laughter has nothing to do with any of those, and is in fact, social behaviour,” says Prof. Scott. “It’s a very common way of interacting, particularly with people you feel close to.”
That social element, and the safety that comes from knowing that person, seems to come in at a very early age. “The two things that are universally associated with making babies laugh are tickling and peekaboo,” says Scott. “Both require someone else being there, and in both of them there’s the intention to do something playfully that could have ambiguous meaning. They’re activities that could be threatening, done safely and playfully.”
Clarity is key. Don’t overcomplicate
“My theory is that toddlers consume TV like adults do when drunk,” says Grant Orchard, creator of CBeebies’ Hey Duggee (the funniest show on British children’s television, in my humble opinion).
“We never did any testing on kids when we first set out making the show. We just felt that if an adult would find it funny, so would a kid – and if they watch it with their parents (which was our aim) then they learn from that: ‘My mum’s laughing at that, maybe I should give this more attention.’”
Hey Duggee follows a strict format – a Scout-like activity group of young animals called the Squirrel Club have various adventures under the tutelage of their leader Duggee, a giant dog, and end up earning a badge of some kind before being picked up by their parents. It incorporates all kinds of weird, wonderful, surreal elements: there’s a lion with smelly breath, a narcissistic panda, and a stick capable of blaring out Ibiza rave anthems.
Orchard and his team put a lot of effort into making the jokes as easy for young minds to take in as possible, something which also influenced the visuals. “The whole show is designed to be clear and readable,” he says – and that means never overlapping characters or props on screen. “The kids and Duggee are usually lined up with space between them all and with few things around them. Giving everything as much space and clarity as possible without it becoming glacial means that everyone has the best chance of getting a joke.”
The jokes – which have led to Emmy and BAFTA glory – tend to be visual, with a hard ban on wordplay (kids don’t get puns). “Physical comedy and pain are pretty much dead certs,” says Orchard. “Episodes that are popular with the kids seem to be ones where Duggee does some kind of elaborate pratfall.”
Embrace silliness. Subvert expectations
“It’s very hard to do stand-up for young kids without them just running off and playing games,” says Tiernan Douieb, a stand-up comedian and part of Comedy Club 4 Kids, where comedians perform family-friendly, kid-focused material. “They don’t really get the concept of jokes until they’re about five or six and realise you can be funny, silly and contrarian on purpose – and then it’s a whole different ball game.”
Douieb’s adult comedy is largely political, but when performing for children he does more joyful, silly sets. “Silly material works quicker with children because they’re already in that mindset,” he says.
Seeing a grown-up prat about on stage – when most adults are authority figures of some kind – has a real excitement to it, explains Douieb, especially if they’re saying things kids wouldn’t expect to hear from a grown-up. “But then, I’ve seen comedians do incredibly silly routines – things like mythical creatures fighting sharks – and children sitting there thinking, ‘Why is this funny? I was thinking about this yesterday.’”
Model a child’s mind. Then surprise them
Children at different developmental stages find different things funny and are capable of different levels of creating and interpreting humour. Some of this is down to increased connectivity as the growing brain develops, which allows for greater generation of ideas and associations. Theory of mind, a key psychological concept that involves perceiving things from other people’s perspectives, is also key to this.
“The development of theory of mind has several implications in humour,” says neuroscientist Ori Amir, who has used MRI scanners to monitor brain activity in both amateur and professional comedians as they write their jokes. “That is, the ability to model other people’s minds. In generating humour you’ll often want to surprise the other person, and you need to have a model of that person’s thinking to be able to do that.”
That’s why the ability to understand irony develops later than other forms of humour, because you need to be able to model the other person’s model of your brain. A joke involving irony involves not only knowing how someone else sees events, but knowing how they think you see them. That’s fairly complicated for a young child – and you’ll get a bigger laugh by simply falling on your bum. As your kids grow older, though, this will start to change.
Don’t stress out about subject matter
People can be too worried about grisliness when making kids laugh, says Douieb. “Kids are quite flippant about death and violence,” he says. “Fairytales are full of it.”
School children also have a broader knowledge base than adults sometimes assume. Douieb has riffed on things he thought only grown-ups would get, forgetting that children are at school learning history, geography, maths and science.
But ultimately, if it’s working, go for it. “If my daughter laughs at a noise I’ve made, I’ll make it again for three hours.”