Contrary to what you may think, you don’t have to be a comic or jokester to make humor work for you and your children. Parents sometimes view joking as a distraction or departure from the usual routine — a break from the serious side of parenting. To the contrary, humor can be a parent’s most useful tool for calming situations, encouraging proper behavior and cementing the parent-child bond. Yet, parents underuse humor and don’t fully appreciate its ability to diffuse or reduce tension.
Parental anger may seem like the right response when your child does something wrong. But, you run the risk of putting a wedge in your relationship. Consider a thoughtful, humorous exchange: laughter or a joke, but one not made at your child’s expense in a way that demeans him. Sarcasm and put-downs work against tightening your parent-child bond. Let’s say you send your child to his room or take your daughter’s cellphone away for two weeks. You are ultimately pushing a child away who already feels miserable because he broke a rule or your favorite bowl (or because he got caught). She’s stressed by the transgression that curtailed her privileges and may begin to harbor resentment toward her restricting parent.
Granted, sometimes humor isn’t the answer. Anything that puts your child in physical danger or seems to put his academic or social standing at risk calls for a serious chat or imposing restrictions.
In so many instances, however, a lighter approach reduces both the parent’s and the child’s stress. It can also keep a situation from escalating and reduce a child’s feelings of regret or remorse over having done something inappropriate. Most importantly, humor underscores that you love your child in spite of the immediate misstep.
Use Humor to Shore Up Connections
Humor, according to Rod A. Martin, one of the premier researchers on the topic, is important for emotional well-being and relationships. In his book, “The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach,” Martin points out that, “Besides boosting positive emotions and counteracting negative moods like depression and anxiety, humor is thought to be a valuable mechanism for coping with stressful life events and an important social skill for initiating, maintaining and enhancing satisfying interpersonal relationships.”
Humor is an ingredient of happiness and social connection that can be effectively used with children. When applied in your family, humor can be a subtle but successful tactic to address your children’s annoying behaviors or missteps.
For parents who are infuriated by what their child has done, summoning humor in those frustrating moments can also reduce a parent’s anger while diffusing a tense situation.
Let’s say, for instance:
— Your toddler throws ketchup at your beige curtains — a direct hit before company arrives in 15 minutes for dinner.
— Your teenager, a new driver, crumples the fender backing out of a parking space when he was told not to take the car to the mall.
— Your 7-year-old tries on every one of your lipsticks, breaking most of them in half.
— Your child uses your favorite handsaw on a mystery, gooey surface, and the saw is now only suitable for collecting dust or the trash.
— You warn the kids that nothing good could come from playing ball in the house. Two minutes later, they crack the living room window.
None of the above is particularly funny in the heat of the moment. As you attempt to control your displeasure and decide what to do, consider a reaction that’s different from your usual approach. For instance, take the line, “nothing good can come of that,” as a family mantra, an inside joke, and call it up when you see trouble brewing next time.
Chances are good that your kids will laugh and start using it themselves (or with their siblings). They may even think twice about having a food fight or using your things without asking, and the line will be one more touching point between you. Alternatively, you can jump up and down or lie on the floor (not speaking) to “say” without words, “Stop what you’re doing right now!” And the children will think their parent acting ridiculously is quite entertaining.
Use Humor to Soften the Rough Parenting Patches
Injecting humor into a difficult situation doesn’t mean you’re a pushover. But it is a tool that can soften the rough parenting patches and preserve your connection with your child. Before you explode, ask yourself, “How important is this misbehavior or accident in the scheme of your or your child’s life?” The answer will probably be, “not very.”
If you decide that the indiscretion isn’t serious enough to warrant an actual punishment or talking to, try these silly approaches instead. Surprisingly, you don’t have to be all that funny to do them.
— Act silly. Walk backwards or abruptly stop speaking as a signal that you don’t approve of whatever might be going on at the moment. Your children will laugh at you once they understand your action means you are not happy with the current behavior.
— Talk to your child in pig Latin. Or ask her to repeat back to you something you said in the language she’s studying in school or in pig Latin.
— Swoop in. Pretend you’re an angel or part of a cleanup crew (if a mess has been created) to diffuse the situation and get help with cleanup.
— Get emotional, but not really. Make believe you are crying or sad, or do a dance and give it a name: “The Broken Vase Dance” or the “Not Going to Bed Dance.”
— Make up a jingle. Use it when your child might be acting unsuitably or is about to break one of your rules, and repeat it often. For example, bust out a tune when you see your daughter is about to go over her allotted nightly screen time. Or, sing when your son is about to touch an object he shouldn’t.
— Laugh at yourself. Do this when you make a mistake or do something boneheaded.
We’re not all naturally funny, but breaking into laughter or acting nonsensically eases tension simply because your child was expecting something else: your anger, a stern warning or a stiff punishment. By changing the tempo, you deflect your child’s apprehension. Using humor gives him a chance to rethink his actions instead of being upset with his parent’s reprimand or pouting over the grounding you deliver.
The bottom line: How do you want to be seen in your child’s eyes? As a fun, easy-going parent who rolls with the punches even when they sting? Or, as a tough taskmaster who lacks flexibility or the ability to understand that kids make mistakes — often unintentional, but upsetting nonetheless?
Use Humor to Move Kids Forward
Humor is also effective in getting children to do what you want and frequently instrumental in saving a parent’s sanity. In her book, “Weird Parenting Wins: Bathtub Dining, Family Screams, and Other Hacks from the Parenting Trenches,” Hillary Frank, creator of the podcast “The Longest Shortest Time,” uses humor and the unconventional to move children in a better direction.
Here are a few ideas from her book:
— To get kids to eat beets, suggest that beets turn their poop pink.
— To calm active imaginations, give your child a kitchen spatula, calling it a “magic scepter,” to protect her from the monsters she fears.
— To quell temper tantrums, try a mood ring.
— To squash unruly behavior at the dinner table, serve dinner on the lawn or in the bathtub.
— To keep siblings from arguing in public, threaten to start singing.
— To keep children from bickering in the car, hand out Life Savers. Whoever makes one last the longest wins another Life Saver.
Frank and her real-parent contributors provide an enormous stream of quirky tips that may work for your child in situations you find sticky, irksome or impossible to find a solution for. If not humorous at the time, these kind of off-the-wall responses will likely become part of your family history and be remembered fondly long after a passing ordeal is forgotten.
[Read: How to Raise Resilient Kids.]
We’re human, and chances are we will “lose it” on occasion with our children. The more we can call up our sense of humor and put the problem in perspective, the more likely it is that the parent-child bond will be strengthened. Be able to laugh at yourself, too, as your children will learn from you that so many mishaps are not life-changing and far more palatable if taken lightly. If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s never too late to start using humor with your toddler or teenager.
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