Thursday, November 12, 2009

Developing a Sense of Humor

Children begin to take in a great deal of information very early on.

They know that if they eat all of the food that’s good for them, they will get dessert. They stretch the limits of bedtime by making acceptable requests, such as, "May I have a glass of water?" "Would you read one more story?" and "I need to go to the bathroom." Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jen Corace’s books are spot-on because they begin with the everyday routines that even youngest readers can recognize, and upend the logic. Little Pea hates sweets, Little Hoot loves bedtime, and Little Oink keeps his room spotless. It’s the adults who break the rules.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with Leonard S. Marcus, the renowned children's books scholar, who has been co-teaching a class with a child psychiatrist at New York University, and who recently wrote a book called Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy. We were talking about the age at which children start to understand certain kinds of humor, such as parody or satire. “With very very young children, they start off just wanting to know things, like the names for things,” Leonard said. “Once they get to the point where they’re starting to get the hang of that, there seems to be an impulse to go beyond it, and begin to play with the things they know. So they’re no longer cut-and-dry facts, but they’re things that can be manipulated, which implies a kind of mastery.”

What surprised me, but made perfect sense when Leonard explained it, was how early in a child’s development this occurs. “When a child is about a year and a half old, they might point to a dog and say, 'cat,' and that’s the beginning of humor and nonsense. And what a powerful statement that is for them. It’s designed to make the person listening--probably a parent--laugh, and to produce a smile on another person’s face. That’s a huge accomplishment for a little child, and it’s one of the best experiences you could ever have. You’ve given pleasure to the person who’s taking care of you. That’s wonderful. And once you’ve had that experience, you want to do it more.”

It seemed to me that what Leonard was describing also could explain, at least in part, a child wanting to read a book over and over again. That, too, would contribute to a sense of “mastery” of a favorite book, knowing what to expect and then playing with the things they know. The child wants to be in charge of the timing of the page turn, and the delivery of the punch line. And what a wonderful thing that is for all of us watching this child develop his or her own sense of humor, as he or she takes “the cut-and-dry facts” and begins to play.

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