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Connoisseurs of Silly: Babies Start Laughing Early—And They Think Your Material Is Great

When an international team of researchers surveyed humor development in children from 1 to 47 months, they asked parents to report the last time their infants and preschoolers had appreciated or produced humor. In the 671 children from four countries included in the studies, the median amount of time for kids appreciating humor was every two hours, and parents reported that the children produced humor themselves almost as often.

Dr. Elena Hoicka

“Once children start producing humor, they’re doing so every three hours,” says the survey’s co-lead author Dr. Elena Hoicka, associate professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Education. “And that’s a conservative estimate because the parents may have put their child to bed several hours before filling out the survey, or they might have missed an instance. So, it’s a pretty conservative measure. But it’s safe to say that kids are appreciating and producing humor really frequently.”

The Early Humor Survey involved a 20-item questionnaire for parents about their children’s humor development from 1 to 47 months, such as whether they were playing peekaboo or laughing at their adults making funny faces. The survey pooled data from multiple studies involving families in the UK, U.S., Canada and Australia to create a global taxonomy of humor development in the first four years. The researchers found that children in all locations were developing humor at the same rates and were responding to and creating the same sorts of humor, suggesting that humor is universal.

“The caveat is, of course, that these are all English-speaking countries,” Hoicka says. “One of my colleagues is now working on a Turkish version and it will be interesting to see if we’ll get the same results or if things look a bit different when we look at other countries. But across these English-speaking countries, we didn’t find differences related to income, gender, parents’ education level or other such factors.

“I would have thought that having an older sibling might increase a child’s humor, but we didn’t find that. Based on our data, it seems that children are developing humor at the same general rate, regardless of other children in the home.”

Hoicka says the researchers wanted to create this survey to establish when humor emerges and what sorts of humor children appreciate, and as a tool to see how development of humor relates to other stages in children’s development. Humor affects many other stages of life such as making friends, coping with stress and creativity. The intention is that systematically charting early humor development will be useful for other researchers who will be better able to target their future experiments and observations, as well as for parents and early childhood educators. Media professionals who are developing children’s programming can use the survey to target what kinds of humor will work at different ages.

The survey starts with babies at one month old, though Hoicka says it isn’t clear whether babies before three or four months really know what they’re doing. They do smile at their parents doing silly things like making funny faces or weird noises. In baby psychologist Dr. Caspar Addyman’s research on infant laughter, parents sent in videos of very young babies laughing, a few as early as one month.

“So, we decided to start our survey at that earliest age,” Hoicka says, “and though it’s rare, we do have some parents reporting humor appreciation and laughter at one month. But babies actually appreciating humor starts with, at best, three months and most are smiling and laughing at jokes (like peekaboo) at four months.”

Hoicka offers a word of caution in taking the timeline too much to heart. She doesn’t want parents thinking their child is a humorless dud just because they aren’t losing it at Daddy’s clowning by their fourth month. Children are born with different natures—some are naturally more somber; some seem to be born light-hearted. They’re going to respond to the world and the people around them on their own timelines. And sometimes Daddy’s clowning around just isn’t as funny as he thinks.

The development of humor is a complex process, and it understandably tracks with the child’s other developmental trajectories. For example, the first year is devoted to sensory development, so disruptions to the ordinary in what the baby hears and sees can be great material for eliciting a laugh. The element of surprise is important in humor of all sorts and equally so with babies. A sound they’ve never heard before can be startling but also hilarious. For example, entire YouTube channels are now devoted to babies cracking up over their parents tearing paper.

Humor and laughter are inherently social and, Hoick says, can be a first step in parent-child communication. Babies at an early age don’t understand language, so clowning and playing provide some of the earliest opportunities to communicate and bond. Humor is also a place for children to practice creativity, because in making a joke or a funny face, the child is getting experience with the something-from-nothing that is the basis of any creative endeavor. Humans spend a lot of time in life trying to get it right; with a joke, the stakes are low and there’s no messing up—it’s just all part of the goofiness.

The call-and-response of humor is another way in which adults scaffold children’s development. The adult provides a cue, and the child responds to the cue; then the adult builds on that with another cue and, like conversational turn-taking, their information highway about the world is strengthened. They learn that when Mummy pretends to eat their toes that she’s really not the toe-eating sort and when Daddy pretends to sneeze a strand of spaghetti out of his nose, why, that’s just silly.

One-year-olds engage in tickling, chasing and funny bodily actions in tandem with their advances in motor development. As they grow older and begin to wrap their heads around language, the types of humor often shift to word-based jokes and riffs, which can be great practice for understanding fact and fiction and putting them to good advantage for a laugh.

Joke Book for the Under 4 Set

Parents are always figuring out what their children find funny, says Dr. Elena Hoicka. The list of gags her research compiled might get caregivers to the smiles and laughs faster or provide ideas they might not have considered before. So, here’s a somewhat chronological, though not comprehensive, comedy set list for kids from 1 month to 47 months, time-tested and true. … [Read more]

“If you’re 4 and you know where the chocolate bar is but mum doesn’t, that can be leverage for a joke,” she says. But for the child to understand and deliver the joke, they must understand that they’re trying to get their audience to consider what’s true or not true at the same time to pull one over on mum. Pretty sophisticated thinking for one so young.

Children don’t really understand types of humor like knock-knock jokes and puns until they’re somewhat older—around 7, Hoick says—but that doesn’t necessarily keep them from giving it a shot. “Knock-knock.” Who’s there?” “Dog!” isn’t exactly a knee-slapper, but it’s good practice as they sort not only what lands, but why.

For humor to be funny, it needs a positive environment, Hoicka says. Among many mammals, playfulness is used as animals are learning fighting or hunting, for instance, signaling that “Yes, we’re fighting, but let’s not actually hurt each other, shall we?” When “funny” gets too pushy or mean, it ceases to be funny and is read for what it is: aggression.

“Aggressive humor is not linked well to good mental health,” Hoicka says. “It’s linked to bullying and, although a lot of people seem to find it funny, it isn’t adaptive to human development in the way other types of humor are. Saying nonsense words is going to get you a lot more friends, for instance, than pushing someone even if you find that funny.

“We haven’t studied this as much as I’d like, but with aggressive humor, it looks as though not everyone gets there even by 47 months. Some kids maybe just aren’t as into it—that’s certainly what we see in older kids and adults. Some people just aren’t into meanness and aggressive humor.”

Beyond a certain age, Hoicka says, there’s a certain type of humor that rarely fails to land. She has a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old and says the richest vein of jokes for either is anything having to do with bodily functions and toilet humor, which a quick scan of some of the highest-grossing (pun intended) movies in the U.S. tells us never goes out of style.

“My daughter, the 3-year-old, has just discovered whispering,” Hoicka says. “She’ll call me over, ‘Come here, come here!’ and I just know what’s going to happen. I lean down and …”

Yep.

“Poo-poo,” she whispers, followed by delighted laughter.

Gets ‘em every time.


RESOURCES

The Early Humor Survey (EHS): A reliable parent-report measure of humor development for 1- to 47-month-olds Authors: Elena Hoicka, Burcu Soy Telli, Eloise Prouten George Leckie, William J. Brown, Gina Mireault and Claire Fox, a team comprising researchers from the UK, Turkey and U.S.

K.C. Compton worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region for 20 years before moving to the Kansas City area as an editor for Mother Earth News. She has been in Seattle since 2016, enjoying life as a freelance and contract writer and editor.

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