Kindhearted humor, lovingly applied, can be a healing balm to soothe the stresses and strengthen the standards of family life.
When our first two children, Taylor and Miles, were 5 and 4 years old respectively, our church sponsored a fathers-and-sons camp-out in a nearby canyon. We spread out some fluffy, silky sleeping bags on the floor of our tent; and after changing into their pajamas, the boys put socks on their feet to stay warm. But the smooth stockings and the slick sleeping bags had an unexpected result—Miles’s feet kept slipping out from under him.
Turning family chores into a game can make them less mundane—and even fun—to do.
Taylor was making fun of his younger brother’s predicament, and I was about to speak to him in anger. Then I thought of a better way to deal with the situation. I gently tugged on the corner of the bag Taylor was standing on, and like his brother he also plopped down. “Having trouble walking, buddy?” I asked. Taylor started giggling.
In an instant Miles toppled again, but this time he was laughing, too. “Having trouble walking, buddy?” I asked again, and soon it became a game. Now both boys wanted to tip over. After a few minutes of silliness, other campers were poking their noses into our tent to see why we were having so much fun.
Today, Taylor is 21 and Miles is 20. But when they’re struggling with something that seems a bit overwhelming, I can still bring a smile to their faces by saying, “Having trouble walking, buddy?” What started as a moment of humor has become a catchphrase. It opens the door, in a gentle way, to discuss what is on their mind. By retrieving a pleasant memory, it also serves as a quiet reminder that each of us may slip and fall, but that we can bounce back up again—with a smile on our face.
‘BOOST-UP,’ NOT ‘PULL-DOWN’
Humor such as this can often help families learn the lessons of life. But it must be kindhearted humor, applied in a loving way (as Taylor realized that my action in the tent was done in fun and not as criticism). That’s what authors Linda and Richard Eyre call a “boost-up” rather than a “pull-down” in their The Book of Nurturing (McGraw-Hill, 2003).
John Fee of Dallas, Tex., grew up in a home in Knoxville, Tenn., in which his father, Harold, constantly used humor to boost up rather than pull down. “As a child I was ridiculed by other students,” John remembers. “My father would use humor to show me that the future was not about being ridiculed, rather, it was about what I was going to do to better myself. He always had anecdotes to show me how life would change and that the people who were teasing me now would not be in my life later on.”
The lessons from Fee’s father have become more poignant over the last 15 years as Harold, now 85, has used humor to cope with the pain of a steel pin inserted to treat a neck injury he sustained during World War II. “Dad has learned that humor helps those around him,” John says. “Perhaps they are more comfortable knowing he can joke about it. You can watch their body language as he talks to them—they go from tense to relaxed, then they start laughing with him.”
It’s a legacy John has employed with his own children. “I use humor to teach my children in a positive way,” he says.
HELPING TODDLERS AND TEENS
Even young children respond well to humor. “If your 4-year-old daughter bumps her elbow,” says Lori Muse of Heber, Utah, “try giving her a quick hug and saying, ‘Oh, did you hurt your stomach?’ It’s amazing how quickly kids will shift the focus from tears to getting the right body part identified, and pretty soon they’ve forgotten the pain altogether.”
In the book Kids Are From Jupiter: A Guide for Puzzled Parents (Deseret Book Company, 2000), Mark Chamberlain suggests that turning chores into a game is a great way to bring a little lightheartedness to the mundane tasks of family life: “One winter day I told my kids how bad I felt that I had no sled dogs to help me clear off the driveway,” he writes. “Good sled dogs, I explained, could help me by pulling loads of snow and ice onto the grass using our toboggan. I even had some dog biscuits (graham crackers) to feed my team. ‘We can be your dogs, Dad!’ they cried. I’ve never seen such eager beasts of burden.”
With teens, however, the same technique may backfire, Chamberlain cautions.
“Humor can work, although probably not as well or as often as it does with their little brothers or sisters. And it must be more skillfully applied,” he notes. “Growing up, I always complained when my mom asked me to do housework. Breaking my stride during a busy day to vacuum? What was she thinking? I’d groan and mumble. But Mom’s comeback disarmed me. ‘You spend hours every week lifting weights. Think of housework as exercise.’ That was sure to give me a good laugh, which usually lasted longer than the job I had to do. I’d do curls with the duster as I walked between shelves. I’d grunt and wipe away imaginary sweat as I vacuumed.”
A POTENT BALM FOR HEALING
Humor can, indeed, be an important healing balm, both in treating the everyday bumps and bruises of family life, and even in the most difficult household situations. Our family has recently dealt with the trauma and tragedy of my wife’s cancer. We have learned to laugh through dire moments—allowing our 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte, to also try on wigs when Julene lost her hair; joking with Julene about how she was imitating neighbors who ran in the Boston Marathon by creating her own long-distance race from bedroom to bathroom; and creating “squishy pets” with Charlotte and our 13-year-old son, McKay, by filling surgical gloves with water and tying the tops to make balloons.
Julene’s treatments increasingly caused her to be nauseated and dizzy. One night, as she was stumbling and bumping into walls trying to get down the hall, Taylor saw that I was nearly overcome with emotion. After Julene was safely back in bed, he gently put his hand on my shoulder. “Having trouble walking, buddy?” he said, and we both knew it was time to talk.
Richard M. Romney is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City, Utah. His wife, Julene, died from colon cancer in July 2005.
No Laughing Matter: Some Things Are Never Funny
As much as humor can be helpful, some things presented in the name of humor aren’t funny at all—in fact, they’re offensive, harmful, or even dangerous.
Sarcasm, often excused as “only a joke,” can singe the soul of a sensitive child. Stereotyping fosters racism and other forms of bigotry and misunderstandings. Dirty jokes profane that which should be sacred. They have no place in Scouting or in any polite society, especially in the home.
The best relationships are built on trust. Those who love you trust you not to use humor in a harmful way. Never use jokes that are hurtful or exclusionary, or that belittle someone who is already feeling down.
“You don’t have to blow out my candle to make yours glow brighter,” says a fifth-grade teacher quoted on the Web site www.humorproject.com. “Use humor as a tool rather than as a weapon,” the site advises.
Especially in your own family, never make light of an allegation of abuse, misconduct, theft, or intimidation. If a child is seeking help or consolation, the best way to respond is simply to listen. You’ll be able to discern pretty quickly whether a minor incident can be softened with silliness or whether the discussion needs to be absolutely serious, including possibly even talking to authorities.
The ‘Jest Medicine': Taking Humor Seriously
The Scout slogan, “Do a good turn daily,” could refer to a simple act of helping another person in some way. Or “it could just be a joke you tell someone else to cheer them up,” says Eagle Scout John Fee of Dallas, Tex. (see main article).
Here are some suggestions for using humor and promoting laughter, adapted for family use, based on material by Joel Goodman on the Web site www.humorproject.com and also published inLaughing Matters magazine:
You can be serious without being solemn. Take your role as parent seriously, but let humor help you deal with difficult decisions in which choices aren’t that clear. Set the tone by modeling your ability to laugh at yourself.
Telling jokes is one way to transmit humor, but it’s not the only way. You don’t have to be a stand-up comic to be a successful parent. Consider taping cartoons on the wall, sharing funny stories found in books or magazines, or asking children to tell you their own favorite jokes. The “Think & Grin” jokes in Boys’ Life magazine can get a laugh out of just about any child—and most adults.
Build humor into your family culture. Let your children be part of a “joy committee,” gathering and sharing ideas about what will make their life at home happier.
Remember, laughter is like “internal jogging.” It “enhances respiration and circulation, oxygenates the blood, suppresses the stress-related hormones in the brain, and activates the immune system.”