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Now, That's Funny!

"Hey, Mom," my 7-year-old, Evan, said to me recently. "Knock, knock."

I took a deep breath (for Evan is king of the nonsensical punch line) and said, "Who's there?"

"Norma Lee," he replied.

"Norma Lee who?"

"Norma Lee, I ring the doorbell!"

Whoa. Could it be? Could my kid finally have mastered the art of telling a joke?

Okay, compared with other milestones that we celebrate in a child's life  -- walking, talking, using the potty  -- joke telling might not seem monumental. But what your child finds funny  -- what he gets  -- is a barometer of his development, and how he expresses it changes as he grows. Humor gives you insight into how his mind is developing, and a window into his unique personality. Besides, being along for the ride (from giggles to riddles) is a good laugh. Here, a guide to your child's ever-changing sense of humor:

Babies: The funny instinct

True, babies can't tell jokes. But they can certainly laugh.

The seeds of humor are there from the get-go. While a lot of humor is picked up over time, thanks to family and friends (and probably TV, too), there's an innate element to it. Even babies are capable of finding something funny  -- and usually it's something a little unexpected that inspires those first laughs.

By 3 or 4 months, your baby's become increasingly aware of what's around her. New and exciting actions  -- being twirled, lifted high (gently, of course!)  -- are what'll get her giggling. She's starting to have fun.

Sounds and colors make infants laugh, too. One of my favorite and earliest memories of my son's blossoming sense of humor is hearing his deep belly laugh after I wound up the musical mobile that hung over his crib.

By around 6 months, your baby will start to laugh at you (in a good way), says Charles Flatter, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Child Study at the University of Maryland, College Park. By now, she knows what to expect from you  -- smiles, coos, diaper changes  -- and any lighthearted deviation is likely to spark a giggle. That's why funny faces, kitty noises, and silly words are winners.

Madeline Pabst of Tucson, Arizona, cracks up when her mom, Katie, pretends to sneeze. "And few things make her laugh as hard as when her dad pretends to eat her hand," she says. Not high humor  -- that is, unless you're a baby.

Funny-bone builder
Mix it up. Give your baby a raspberry on her belly during a humdrum diaper change. Or go wild and put that diaper on your head. (The clean one: Only a preschooler would find the alternative truly hilarious.) Do something simple and different, and do it with a smile, and you'll probably get one back.

Dara Chadwick has written for Woman's Day and Better Homes & Gardens.

Toddlers: Little comedians

Silliness reigns supreme as babies turn into toddlers. Think songs that don't make sense, socks on the hands, and grown-ups pretending to be farm animals. The more incongruous, the better. It's amazing, all that little kids will find to laugh about.

Just as babies like a bit of the unexpected, toddlers get a big kick out of things that go awry. Kids this age do like to have a sense of control over their world, but that doesn't mean they want everything well-ordered every minute of the day. It's a delight for them to be able to recognize when something familiar is just a little off  -- like when I used to send my daughter, Faith, into peals of laughter just by putting on her dad's size-12 shoes and walking around the living room.

Now you're not the only comedian in town anymore. Toddlers start to understand that they can be the ones who are funny, too. And they eat it up. Katelyn Stealey, 2, of Massapequa, New York, makes up nonsense words and finds them hysterical. And the more exasperated with them that her mom, Karen, pretends to get, the harder Katelyn laughs. This is the age when kids run around the house and do funny things. Enjoy.

Funny-bone builder
Embrace silly songs and stories, and pull a "What? You don't want dog food for dinner tonight?"-type gag every once in a while. Toddlers love nothing more than when Mom and Dad join in the fun. Encourage your child's pretend play, too: The more outlandish the game of I'm-the- elephant-you're-the-duck gets, the more he'll laugh.

Preschoolers: Laughter loves company

Ari Richardson, 4, of Farmington, Michigan, loves the classic knock, knock joke that ends, "Orange you glad I didn't say banana?" But as her mom, Debbie, explains, Ari likes the joke so much she tells it with words other than banana. So in their house, the joke has been known to end, "Orange you glad I didn't say Sleeping Beauty?" She just doesn't get why hers doesn't work quite as well as the original.

As your child's language skills really bloom, using words becomes the best way to make himself  -- and you  -- laugh. That might mean trying to tell a joke (though double-meaning punch lines are pretty much still beyond him), or playing with rhymes. And, says Flatter, the humor in incongruity  -- like calling a cup a fork  -- still hasn't gone away. (Does it ever? Why else do so many people find men dressed as women so funny?)

Another form of preschooler humor you're likely to encounter: the potty joke. With diapers safely behind them, kids this age have a new appreciation for their bodies and what they can do. Add to this the knowledge that the topic's usually private, and you almost inevitably hear chuckles about poop and guffaws over farts. If you ignore these jokes, they just might  -- might!  -- go away.

Funny-bone builder
Your child tells a joke you don't get? Laugh anyway. He just wants you in on the fun. Play along with his love of verbal humor, too, by changing the words to favorite stories or songs. And the more you read and talk, the more references to the world he'll start to pick up, which will only expand his repertoire of funny.

Schoolkids: When jokes click

By 6 or 7, your child will start telling the kinds of jokes and making the kinds of remarks that you find not only cute and amusing but actually funny.

Kids this age now have the language skills for jokes to make sense, and there's nothing like seeing a 7-year-old's face light up the first time she gets a pun. Of course, you may hear the old chestnuts repeated ad nauseam, but don't be surprised when your child makes up her own jokes, too. Humor also becomes a social tool. My 9-year-old daughter gets a kick out of crafting her spelling words each week into a funny paragraph designed specifically to make her teacher laugh. And just like adults, kids gravitate toward those who share their sense of humor. Many a friendship has been cemented by an uncontrollable fit of giggles.

Your child may still love bathroom and physical humor (and, unfortunately for you, she may never grow out of it entirely!), but subtler jokes and funny stories will be mercifully mixed in.

Funny-bone builder
Stay connected. As your child starts to learn from and laugh with her friends, it's easy to step back and let them be. But while kid-only time is valuable at this age, joking with Mom and Dad is still one of the most fun ways to keep those bonds strong. Watch TV together, tell jokes at dinner, or just share something funny that happened to you while you were apart.

Now that my son tells jokes (with proper punch lines), I'm happy to report that having a kid who makes me laugh is as thrilling as making a baby smile. Who knew knock, knock jokes would hold a place of honor in our family?

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