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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:

Babies: Mom The Comic

What's so funny? Typically, babies are 3 or 4 months old when they laugh for the first time, usually in response to being tickled or twirled in your arms or to some other physical stimulation. After the 6-month mark, they have a better grasp of their tiny world and begin to understand that something unexpected and out of the ordinary can be hilarious. "The basis of humor at this stage is distortion," says McGhee. So that's why your funny faces and silly voices elicit such a happy response from your little one.

Get 'em giggling. You'll make your baby howl by mooing like a cow or sticking your tongue out. Witness Eoin Carroll, a 1-year-old in San Jose, California. "What really gets him going is when his dad wears a bag on his head," says his mom, Siobhan. Another guaranteed laugh riot for a baby is peekaboo. To keep this classic game fresh, vary it a little  -- make funny faces or pop up over your hands instead of through them.

Toddlers: Let's Pretend!

What's so funny? Mom's still good for a guffaw, but that's not all: Kids this age have figured out how to make themselves laugh. What cracks them up? Pure silliness  -- usually based on a twist on reality. Just as babies love it when you turn a mixing bowl into a stylish hat, 1- and 2-year-olds adore doing it themselves.

Get 'em giggling. Encourage pretending. Along with tickling your child's funny bone, this kind of behavior boosts imagination. So when little Sammy picks up a shoe and plays it like a guitar, clap your hands and tap your feet. Lucy loves to pretend that a pretzel stick is a magic wand and that she's a princess with the power to turn me into a dog. This is particularly comic when I bark.

Preschoolers: Heard Any Good Ones?

What's so funny? As kids get comfortable with language, they discover a whole new world of jokes. The punch line most appreciated by a preschooler? Calling an object the wrong name. A shoe is a shirt; a ball is a rock. It's enough to send a 4-year-old into spasms.

After that, repetitive rhymes take center stage. You'll probably hear a riff on one word  -- "silly, dilly, willy"  -- or "Where's Daddy Faddy Paddy?" Also funny: using real words in nonsensical combinations. What's "tree milk" or "bicycle corn," you wonder? It's nonsense. It confuses parents. And that's why it's funny to kids.

Most children love the sound effects they hear in cartoons (splat, zoinks), computerized toys (wild eep), and the noises emitted by their own bodies (fart, burp). You might have noticed that not everyone (such as husbands) grows out of this.

Get 'em giggling. Laugh at her jokes  -- and play along with the mislabeling games, from time to time. You can also get in on her love of goofy language by making up songs and poems that have nonsensical endings. Shira Saville, a mom of two in Chicago, says her 3-year-old, Ari, loves it when she changes familiar lyrics  -- especially to Elton John tunes: "Instead of 'Someone saved my life tonight,' he laughs hysterically if we sing, 'Someone make Ari go to sleep tonight.'"

Schoolkids: Little Riddlers

What's so funny? "There's a pre-riddle stage," says McGhee, "when a child is old enough to understand the structure of a joke, but not the punch line. That's why five-year-olds tell a lot of jokes that make no sense." For example: "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "Nobody!" Or "What did the cat say to the mouse?" "I'm going to eat you!" So not funny, but you can almost hear a kindergartner cracking herself up with such yuks.

By 7, most kids make the exciting discovery that the same word can have two different meanings, and they'll be able to understand the humor in the classic "what's black and white and read all over" type of wordplay. Once they do, watch out: They're likely to repeat such jokes obsessively because they love being the ones with the answers. Another humorous power play for first- or second-graders: making the parent the butt of jokes.

Get 'em giggling. Let her devour as many riddle books as she likes. Maggie particularly loves riddles about cats ("How do cats keep up with current events?" "They read the mewspaper!"). Some jokes she reads on string-cheese wrappers ("What do you call a fairy who doesn't bathe?" "Stinkerbell!"). Besides improving reading skills, riddles are a way to increase a kid's general knowledge. Take this joke, for example: A woman walks into a pizza place and says, "Large pizza with everything, please." The man asks if she wants it cut into eight slices, and she says, "Better make it four. I'm on a diet." To get this, a child will have to reach the cognitive stage where this even makes sense, and jokes like this may help her get there more quickly. Humor in fractions. Who knew?


Preteens: Putting On A Funny Face

What's so funny? Tweenage humor expands to include metaphors, irony, and sarcasm about everything from boy-girl stuff to poking fun at siblings and peers. By the time kids are 8, humor becomes a tool. They learn that they can try to get away with risqué remarks and bad behavior by making it a joke. Did hanging his little sister's dolls from her bedroom ceiling fan result in a week's worth of no TV? Bet you'll hear, "But I was only kidding!" in an attempt to fend off punishment.

More important, a preteen can start to make light of things that genuinely scare him. If a child's afraid of sleeping with the lights off, for instance, he might make fun of himself for being such a chicken or acting like such a baby. It's your basic "laugh in the face of your fears" idea that generates a reassuring feeling of "This isn't so bad  -- I can handle this."

Get 'em giggling. Try to understand the kinds of things your child finds funny (even if they're still far from the sort that actually make you laugh). If it's an "Ewwww, gross!" followed by side-splitting hysteria when your tween sees two people kiss on TV, that's certainly harmless enough. But be careful you don't support a cruel or biting remark that's disguised as a joke. When humor turns nasty, explain that making others the butt of jokes is hurtful  -- not hilarious. And remember: Your child can understand many of the jokes you find funny, so try to set a good example. If she sees you crack up a crowd by telling a joke that's good clean (unprejudiced) fun, odds are that's what she'll aim to do as well.

Most of the time, though, try to laugh at your kid's jokes, no matter how lame. In the stand-up comedy of life, grown-ups are a kid's best audience.


Valerie Frankel is a contributing editor to Parenting and the author of The Accidental Virgin and Smart vs. Pretty.