Peek-a-boo-boo: How not to prank a child
How can one foster a sense of humour, without potentially damaging the trust built up between parent and child? It turns out, the answer is rather complex.
It can be hard to know how to prank a child.
Earlier this year, the #EggCrackChallenge had parents post Reels of themselves pretending to make breakfast, then breaking an egg on a child’s head, instead of into a bowl. The hashtag sparked debate, as viewers — ranging from other parents and bored onlookers to paediatric psychologists — weighed in on the shock, hurt and anger expressed by many of the children.
So when exactly do children develop a sense of humour? And how can one help foster it, without potentially damaging the trust built up between parent and child? It turns out, the answer is rather complex.
When researchers at the University of Bristol surveyed the parents of 671 children aged 0 to 47 months from the UK, US, Australia and Canada, they found that 50% of the children appreciated humour in the first two months (the hide and reveal, “stealing the nose” variety), and 50% started producing humour by 11 months (funny faces, voices and noises; misusing body parts, such as putting the head through the legs; misusing objects, such as putting a cup on the head).
Two-year-olds were found to appreciate humour in language, such as mislabelling items. Many were also found to gain an appreciation for slapstick humour and jokes at the expense of others, such as someone slipping on a banana peel. By age three, children were seeing the humour in playing with social norms. A common expression of this: saying naughty words to elicit a reaction. (The findings were published in the journal Behavior Research Methods, in 2021.)
“Our results highlight that humour is a complex, developing process in the first four years of life,” Elena Hoicka, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “It is important that we develop tools to determine how humour first develops so that we can further understand not only the emergence of humour itself, but how humour may help young children function cognitively, socially, and in terms of mental health.”
A decade earlier, a study by researchers at the University of Stirling, Scotland, found that children aged two to three went from copying parents’ jokes to producing jokes of their own, such as putting their underwear on their heads or calling a cat a dog, even before they began forming full sentences. In most cases, the sense of humour developed in line with that of the audience, the family unit, found the study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology in 2012.
What the egg crack challenge did was prey on the child’s intrinsic trust and dignity, says Gouri Dange, a family counsellor and author of Always a Parent (2016).
“Children, like pets, seniors or any vulnerable group, should never be exposed to humour as humiliation,” Dange says. “If you’re going to prank a child, let them first witness and enjoy a prank aimed at an adult, or between two adults. Even this should be non-humiliating and should preferably not involve anyone being hurt or having egg trickle down their face.”
When it comes to the child’s turn, keep it short and swift so that the surprise or shock is brief, and the humour point be reached quickly. The child is then in on the joke, and not just the butt of it.
“Just momentarily feeling foolish or disappointed could be the broad aim — like unwrapping many layers of a present and finding something silly like a stone inside,” Dange says. “But with kids, I would have the real present ready immediately after.”