6 Things That Determine Sense of Humor

Humor is by definition the ability to express or perceive what is funny; and a sense of humor is actually one of the most desirable traits to have and wish from and for others. It’s no wonder parents want this for their child, especially if the recent research connecting it to intelligence is to be believed! So what determines a sense of humor, then?

There are at least six things parents should be aware of that determine a sense of humor in their child: socialization, language ability, imagination, knowledge of deception, encouragement, and concept of proper boundaries. A sense of humor is a useful, if not essential, tool in human interaction.

Of the aforementioned things that determine a child’s sense of humor, a few of these are things you are probably already doing with your child. However, understanding them better and being mindful of implementing them properly will help you to foster and enjoy your child’s developing sense of humor. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned with you about these 6 things that determine a sense of humor!

Socialization – The Social Function Of Humor

Socialization is not only just communicating and socializing with others, but also the process of learning societal norms and expectations. There is a definite social function of humor and a reliance on social cues in the development of a sense of humor.

The social function of humor is its connection with communication. The very act of humor is sharing a joke with someone or recognizing a funny situation. That social connection is universal from human to human; yet there are also social differences of humor across cultures and generations.

Humor is social. Whether it is a way to ease tension, to make a situation less awkward, or to bring levity to a serious moment, the social function of humor is clear. But the social aspect of humor is dependent upon the ability to perceive social cues, which aren’t the same for everyone.

To find something funny, you must be able to pick up on the cues that signal that something is humorous, and often this involves social cues that vary from culture to culture. Something considered humorous in Japan is not quite as funny in Honduras, because of the social-cultural connection humor takes.

Shared experience or the recognition of some sort of mutual understanding is vital to humor. This means humor is not only connected by social-culture ties, but also varies across generations. Something humorous to 8-year-olds is not so funny as a teen or grandparents.

There is also the social function of humor in understanding what is the norm and ‘not norm’ in society. For example, think about how a child may dress up in adult clothes to appear funny. They can make this joke because they recognize that it is abnormal behavior, and they trust that you will have the same realization.

Socialization is thus an essential factor in determining a sense of humor. Interacting with other people allows a child to become more aware of a larger shared world and to learn to communicate findings (or jokes) about that world to others.

Language Ability Can Determine Humor

Similar to socialization, language ability is also a large determinant of a sense of humor. Just think about how many jokes rely on words!

Language ability determines sense of humor. The ability to effectively use language is critical for a sense of humor. To communicate humor one needs understanding of intonation, deflection, word choice, figurative language, and expression, just to name a few essential features of verbal communication.

Of course, a child’s language ability will not develop overnight. This is why babies and toddlers tend to find physical humor, like funny faces and slapstick, funny in lieu of irony and sarcasm, which they only begin to appreciate as they and their language ability grow.

What this means for you is that you should cater your humor to your child’s language ability, and progress it accordingly. Babies may like funny faces; toddlers like nonsense words and rhymes; young children like jokes; and teenagers enjoy sarcasm, as long as they’re the ones dishing it out, that is!

In other words, humor should develop along with a child’s understanding of language.

Where your child is linguistically is also a good way to measure where their sense of humor should be. The more language they understand, the more humor they should be able to pick up as well.

I also recommend these articles from our site about language and humor:

Sense Of Humor And Imagination

Another important skill to foster that will cause your child to develop a sense of humor is his or her imagination. Quite simply put, you have to be able to imagine funny things to have a sense of humor.

An imagination is something that determines sense of humor for children into adulthood. Humor often relies on double meanings, abstract thought, and thinking out-of-the box. These are all aspects reliant on one’s own developed imagination, or ability to imagine something not readily seen.

The reason imagination plays such a prominent role in humor is that much humor is based on incongruity. Sarcasm is based on saying one thing while meaning another. Funny faces are funny because your face is not supposed to look like that normally. Situations are often humorous because they are unexpected.

To understand humor then, a child needs to have an imagination.

They have to be able to recognize incongruity and fantastic situations to understand a lot of what makes things funny. In short, the ability to pretend is an important aspect of humor.  

Recent research from Austrian scientists have also linked intelligence and sense of humor. And even though genes play a role in I.Q., there is corroborating evidence that intelligence is malleable, meaning you are able to actively increase it depending upon targeted learning methods.

All of this is to say, teaching humor is worthwhile for parents, as it not only supports their child’s social and communication skills, but also their intelligence!

Imagination comes naturally most of the time, but you can certainly encourage it as well and target the development of humor. Telling stories, playing games, and creating things can all teach your child about the power of imagination.

To infuse humor, make the stories silly. Act goofy in pretend play. Create ways to purposefully bring humor into your everyday life. These activities will not only build up your child’s imagination, but also help him or her better understand humor in general.

Knowledge of Deception In Humor

Closely linked to the need for imagination is the knowledge of deception. Children who do not recognize that deception exists will have a hard time developing a sense of humor.

The knowledge of deception is instrumental in determining a sense of humor in individuals. Because humor is frequently disguised through deception or trickery, the awareness of this possibility is necessary for figuring out the joke or discovering what’s (not so obviously) intended as funny.

Does this mean that your child has to understand lying to get a joke? Think about the simple gag of pretending to take your child’s nose. If a child believes that you really took their nose, then this is not funny but instead, scary!

Children can giggle and play along when you “take their nose” because they know that you are deceiving them. It is funny because it is not true.

Imagination is the ability to pretend for yourself, but the knowledge of deception is recognition that other people can pretend as well. What this means is that playing simple tricks, like taking your child’s nose or even the game of peekaboo, is crucial to determining your child’s sense of humor.

Playing an innocent joke on your kid is not just fun, but helpful! It’s a simply albeit quite effective way to foster a sense of humor in your child. So go ahead and play those April Fool’s jokes, whether it’s April 1st or July 31st!

Humor Encouragement

When you laugh with your child, you’re showing him or her that laughter is great, and encouraging it to continue.

No one likes to laugh alone! One of the biggest things that determine a child’s sense of humor is whether or it is encouraged.

Encouragement is necessary to determine a sense of humor. When your child does something to cause laughter and you laugh as a response, you are teaching him or her about humor. Likewise, if you don’t laugh as a response, you are still teaching about humor, only now what is not funny.

Even before babies can understand humor at all they still tend to smile when you smile at them. Laughing, smiling, and displaying humor through jokes and other means encourages your child to copy and try these things for themselves.

Remember that a lot of humor comes from communication. If humor is never communicated to a child they will never learn to perceive things as humorous. Sharing your laughter and smiles is a way to help make sure your child develops their own sense of these things.

Besides personally being a source of humor, encouragement also means giving your child access to funny media. There are massive amounts of toys, books, and movies for children of all ages with the purpose of humor. Remembering to include these in what your child takes in is important for their developing sense of humor.

The final aspect of encouragement has to do not with the input of funny things into your child, but how you handle the output your child will eventually produce. At a very young age, children may begin to try to be funny themselves. Playing along with their jokes and laughing with them encourages their budding humor to continue to grow.

Let’s look at this last piece for determining sense of humor in the next section.

Boundaries And Humor

The other items on this list have explored what determines that a child will have a sense of humor. We want our children to have a sense of humor because humor is important to a person’s health and well-being. However, we also want to ensure that the sense of humor your child develops is appropriate. Otherwise, that is not funny at all!

Humor is healthy, but a child that takes deception too far, becomes cruel with their jokes, or harmful with their slapstick has developed a harmful sense of humor. What determines whether a child’s humor is healthy or harmful?

A keen concept of proper boundaries and abiding by them determines an appropriate sense of humor. There is a fine line between something being funny or harmful, and understanding this is a necessary component of a sense of humor.

Remember that the other items on our list focused heavily on how humor is a social activity. Children develop humor by copying their parents and interacting with other human beings. Thus, they will also learn the boundaries of their humor in the same way.

What the people around them laugh at will have a huge impact on what a child finds funny. Just as encouragement fosters their humor, knowing when to stop encouraging is also essential. Do not laugh at mean-spirited jokes or hurtful comments if you do not want your child to find them funny.

I’ve never understood the humor of those YouTube videos showing parents laughing at their little one mouthing off, cursing, or committing some other inappropriate act. Parents are basically reinforcing bad behavior from their child, behavior they’ll more than likely loathe in coming years, and sharing it with the world!

As children begin exploring humor themselves, this will also mean the occasional reprimand is necessary. Just as you should laugh and encourage your child when they try to be funny, you should also know when not to laugh to indicate that they have done something inappropriate.

When you laugh, and don’t laugh, like discussed in the Encouragement section, you are drawing lines of boundary for your child. The more you demonstrate these lines clearly and consistently, the better your child will be at understanding and following boundaries.

Note: This does not mean punishing your child for unintentional missteps, but simply providing helpful feedback to guide your child’s sense of humor. The boundaries you set and exemplify with humor will have a large impact on your child’s sense of humor for years to come.

Punchline for Things That Determine Sense of Humor

So what do you need to remember? What’s the final word, or punchline, for things that determine a sense of humor in your child?

You need to remember there are (at least) 6 distinct factors that are critical to the development of a proper sense of humor.

  • Socialization: The Social Function of Humor determines a sense of humor. Humor is social, both culturally and across generations.
  • Language Ability: A sense of humor grows along with your child’s language ability.
  • Imagination: Imagination is necessary for a well-developed sense of humor.
  • Knowledge of Deception: Children must know of the possibility for deception or trickery to be able to figure out many jokes or acts of humor.
  • Encouragement: Encouragement is a way to teach children what is, and is not, funny.
  • Boundaries: Boundaries are set via responses to what is appropriate and not appropriate in relation to humor.

I also recommend these articles from our site about language and humor for further reading:


Jackie Booe

A mother to four kids, grandmother ("Oma") to a growing number, a retired teacher for over 18 years, and a wife to Mat since 1994, Jackie knows kids and laughter. She holds a license to teach in 3 states and is certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners, with practical experience at all levels. She holds three degrees in the field of education and has taught education courses online at the university level as an adjunct professor, too. She has mentored numerous education interns, hosted professional development for educators, and tutored, in addition to homeschooling her own children.

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