Nothing is as delightful to parents as their baby's laugh, and most moms and dads are willing to get pretty silly to hear the sound of their little one's giggles and squeals. But humor is more than just an enjoyable way to pass the time—it is also vital to your baby's healthy development.
The Significance of Humor for Baby
Humor is an important means of emotional communication. When you laugh with your baby, he senses your positive mood and approval. The mutuality and reciprocity of humorous social interaction provide a valuable context for learning how to communicate in loving relationships. Indeed, the mutuality involved in humorous interaction with your baby builds the parent-child attachment.
Families have their own unique type of humor, based on their culture, values, and experiences together, and humor builds family solidarity. Many families develop their own styles of humor to cope successfully with poverty, war, and other kind of losses. In some families sentimentality is taboo, but humor is used to express tender feelings in ways that are acceptable.
A good sense of humor will serve your child well in other ways as well. Even as early as preschool, humorous children tend to be more socially competent and more popular with their peers and have more advanced social skills and self-confidence, as baby comes to realize that he can influence others by making them laugh. (Whoa! I can make these people double over just by sticking my tongue out! I wonder what else I can do!) Some children even learn that humor is an effective way of deflecting teasing from their peers.
Humor is also a means of socialization, as parents teach a baby what is acceptable behavior (eating with a spoon) by laughing at unacceptable behavior (putting the spoon on baby's nose). In fact, as baby learns what "the rules" are, he loves to break those rules to get a reaction—one reason he keeps dropping the spoon on the floor so you will pick it up is that he has learned that spoons do not belong on the floor.
How Humor Can Be Helpful
Recent research supports what your grandmother told you: humor can help your child cope with stress and adversity, partly by facilitating the release of beneficial hormones and partly by teaching her to reframe a stressful situation (from that other kid won't let me play with him! to that other kid is acting like a silly goofball!). Recent neuroscience research shows that a humorous approach may even improve problem-solving capacity by enhancing the ability to see situations in different ways. Indeed, psychologists consider a good sense of humor to be an important part of a healthy ego.
Brain imaging studies suggest that humor might enhance children's intellectual development, too. Infancy is the time when skills and abilities are being developed based on exposure to experience; neurons in the brain that are used develop further, while those that are not are pruned back. (This is normal; we are born with many more neurons than we need.) One study showed that humor, perhaps because it is generally complex, "fires" many parts of the brain and may help in integrating the parts of the brain to work together more effectively.