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The Best Laugh

How to teach the difference between godly hilarity and hurtful "humor"

Last week, I supervised in my son's classroom during lunch. With the teacher away, the kids joked coarsely and hurtfully. Finally I said, "It's okay to laugh and tell jokes. But how about telling jokes that aren't crude and don't make fun of others?" The ringleader replied, "They wouldn't be funny then."

The idea these children had about what's funny probably reflects the obnoxious approach to humor taken by many television sitcoms. While I do what I can to keep my son from adopting this view, I know that a healthy sense of humor enriches life. Here are ways I direct his attention to godly hilarity.

God's Gift of Laughter
While my son and I were browsing in a Christian bookstore, I mentioned buying a kid's joke book. "But if it's Christian," he said solemnly, "it won't be very funny."

Although appropriate humor involves some needed prohibitions, the idea that Christian and funny are contradictory is a false impression.

"A cheerful heart is good medicine," says the writer of Proverbs 17:22. Laughter is, in fact, a God-given gift to relax and free us.

Humor researchers are discovering the benefits of healthy humor.

It reduces tension and moderates anxiety. It enhances relationships. It promotes confidence, learning and creative thinking. More important, the ability to enjoy healthy humor is a mark of true spirituality.

In an article in Christianity Today, J. I. Packer writes, "Appreciating pleasures as they come our way is one mark of a reverent, God-centered heart . ? Pleasure is divinely designed to raise our sense of God's goodness, deepen our gratitude to him, and strengthen our hope as Christians looking forward to richer pleasure in the world to come."

Cal Samra, editor of The Joyful Noiseletter, agrees. "We can be moral, reverent and still have fun," he says. Samra points out that holy humor differs from worldly humor in two significant ways: subject matter and motivation. Christians shouldn't glorify sin in their jokes, "but we can poke gentle fun at our own follies," he says. "Holy humor points out that we've all fallen short of the glory of God. Humility will be the root of the humor that springs from a holy heart."

Christian humorist Liz Curtis Higgs says, "We laugh at ourselves, not at the other guy. Godly humor means not putting someone else down."

All children know the pain of being the brunt of someone else's joke. It's good to remind them of that when they participate in jokes that exclude or humiliate others. Encourage your children to use that standard when choosing friends and making entertainment choices.

Discuss as a family your guidelines for what is appropriate humor. When you watch television together, pick out one or two of the jokes that seemed funny. Ask: Why was it funny? Would laughing at this please God?

Born to Have Fun
Most children are born with an appetite for laughter. In How to Develop Your Sense of Humor (Kendall/Hunt), Paul E. McGhee writes: "Chances are that you've played the game of 'Show me your eye ? show me your nose ? ' with your toddler. Even if you always do this in a serious way, the day eventually comes when your child gets a funny expression in her eyes and shows a playful smile when you say, 'Show me your ear.' Does she point to the ear? No. She points to her nose, and laughs! All healthy children like to turn reality on its ear."

Because humor is the enjoyment of an incongruity, your child must understand the normal relationship between things before he can distort the idea in the form of a joke. To nurture the development of his sense of humor, provide more of the humor he understands and enjoys?just as you would in purchasing an appropriate toy.

The parent who demonstrates a sense of humor under stress teaches her child a valuable lesson.

Researchers and humorists agree that parents and educators who are overwhelmed with the seriousness of developing children usually go too far in pushing kids to abandon their playful approach to life. Instead of squelching your child's natural playfulness, teach him or her when it's appropriate to be playful and when it's not. Liz, the youngest of six, says, "I grew up in a family where humor was affirmed and applauded." She feels that during the first five years of a child's life you should laugh exuberantly without censoring your child as she experiments with humor. As she prepares to enter school, teach the when, where, how and why of appropriate humor.

In his article "Humor and the Mastery of Living" (Journal of Children in a Contemporary Society), humor researcher Rod A. Martin says children need to learn that even the funniest people make attempts at humor that fall flat. Developing the ability to be funny requires falling on your face, picking yourself up and trying again.

The parent who demonstrates a healthy sense of humor under stress teaches her child a valuable lesson. While it's unhealthy to use laughter to deny emotions like sadness or fear, if you look for it, you can usually find something funny in the midst of a tense situation. Bob Phillips, the author of numerous joke books, advocates teaching kids to laugh because with some things in life there's nothing else to do. Things that seem stressful today often seem hilarious later on.

I'm the one now who laughs the loudest when I tell the story of how, in an attempt to repair my broken sunglasses, I inadvertently glued them to my thumb. Back when it happened, and I almost cried, my family members tried?but not very hard?to suppress their giggles. Often, laughter will turn a potentially divisive situation into a time of bonding, creating cherished memories.

Experts say people are usually cued to a person's intent to amuse through signals like a glint in the eye or the hint of a smile. Children need more emphatic cues than adults to be sure they are encountering humor and not something more bizarre. That's one of the reasons sarcasm, irony and dry humor often escape children.

My boys were arguing over which one of them was first to think of the riddle about the chicken crossing the road. "Good grief," I said, tired of hearing them squabble. "You think you made up that riddle? The last time I heard it, I fell off my dinosaur laughing."

"We knew you were old," they said seriouly. "But we didn't think you were that old."

I couldn't help but laugh. It's in my laughter and yours that our children will learn the most about godly hilarity.

Faith Tibbetts McDonald is an educator, writer and mother. She lives with her husband, Steve, and their three children, Matthew, Phillip and Caroline, in State College, Pennsylvania.

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