We are all born with the ability to find things funny. For Paul McGhee, who began researching humor in children back in the 1970s, the evidence is clear: “Children have a sense of humor from the word go. Or, as I prefer to put it:
We all have a predisposition to play. Playing is the basis of our innate sense of humor.” In children humor becomes evident when they do things that they know are incorrect, like call objects the wrong name on purpose. “Do you like my airplane?” asks Paul McGhee, laughing and pointing to his shoes. Babies as young as six to nine months old find it funny when the world gets mixed up, like when parents pull funny faces, put a sock on their head (socks belong on feet!) or accidentally bump their heads and say “ouch!”. “It’s not schadenfreude,” says UZH psychologist Jennifer Hofmann. “The child is amused by the act of the head being bumped, the face that the parent pulls and the noise that they make.” When they are a little older, children find it amusing to break wind or do other things to challenge their parents.
Hofmann films her subjects to analyze whether the facial expressions signal amusement at a funny situation or a happy smile. Distinctions can be made between different types of laughs and smiles.
Children’s humor is coupled with cognitive abilities: Their repertoire grows as the brain develops. Parents play a decisive role, as children very closely observe how they react and what form of humor they use. Parents therefore have the capacity to encourage or discourage their children’s sense of humor. The same is true later of other people who are close to the child such as friends or teachers. Ergo: Someone who grows up in a humorless environment, or one in which humor is even frowned upon, will not develop a positive relationship to humor.