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Laugh It Up!

When my daughter Maggie was 6, she cornered me and asked, "Mom, will you remember me forever?"

"Of course," I said.

"In a week? In a year?"

"I will remember you every minute of every day for the rest of my life," I said, thinking we were having a real bonding moment.

"That's good to know," she said  -- then, "Knock, knock."

"Who's there?"

"Forgot me already?"

Oh, yes, that's a knee-slapper all right. But when Maggie tried it out on her sister, Lucy, then 3, all she got was a blank stare. Lucy was still at the age when the heights of hilarity are reached when someone trips on the sidewalk and falls on her behind.

Ask humor experts (yes, there is such a field of expertise) if we're born with a sense of humor, and the answer is a decided "sort of." "Everyone is born with the potential for humor  -- the ability to find things funny and make people laugh," says Paul McGhee, Ph.D., author of Understanding and Promoting the Development of Children's Humor.

Not all kids will be as jocular as others, however, and what isn't already in your child's genetic code depends largely on his home life, since children learn by example. Seeing adults who are funny  -- and understanding that a good sense of humor is appreciated and rewarded with laughter  -- encourages a kid to imitate that behavior. For most of us, just navigating the day can be downright preposterous and, therefore, rich with humor potential for the kiddies.

Sometimes, though, parents can unknowingly thwart a child's comic development. It's easy to laugh with a baby, much harder to muster a smile when your 4-year-old finds it hilarious to drop her sister's birthday cake on the floor or your older child slips Tabasco sauce into the apple juice. Even Mike Myers would agree that under most circumstances such behavior is inappropriate. But other attempts at being funny, such as acting silly or goofing around, are great to encourage.

Even when a little kid latches onto a nonsensical pun or poem and repeats it over and over again until you're sick  -- sick!  -- of hearing it, it's important to listen, and to laugh. And keep in mind that one reason your little comedian seems to be on instant replay is that he got a laugh the first time around. When a child is given the freedom to be funny, his creativity, self-esteem, and confidence will grow, say experts. What more can you ask of a few knock, knock jokes?

An age-by-age guide to how kids develop a sense of humor  -- and what you can do to encourage it: