Next time your child tells you to "lighten up," consider this: Maybe you should.
Having a sense of humor is essential to surviving (and enjoying) kids of all ages. Too often, however, "there is no downtime to just be goofy and easygoing," says Tim Jordan, a St. Louis pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Kids Grounded (Palmerston & Reed, 1999). Parents are exhausted from work and from shuttling kids from one activity to the next. With all this rushing around, he says, families miss out on the chance to have fun, be spontaneous, and feel close.
Using humor doesn't mean doing stand-up comedy. Rather, it's about being respectful and not getting provoked by your kids' attitudes. You may not be able to control your kids' actions, but you can control how you respond to them.
If you are tired of yelling when things go awry, get creative -- and be silly. "Humor is a fabulous diffuser if parents use it," says Michele Borba, an educational consultant in Palm Springs, California, and author of Parents Do Make a Difference (Jossey-Bass, 1999). When tensions start to escalate in her home, Borba sings. One day, as her 15- and 17-year-old sons argued, Borba belted out a few lines from a John Lennon song: "All we are saying, is give peace a chance." The boys stopped fighting and started laughing. "My message was: Let's get along," she says. When they were little, simply telling a knock-knock joke or singing "When you're happy and you know it" would change the mood.
Pediatrician Tim Jordan also advocates doing the unexpected. "Just doing something crazy breaks the ice," he says. One of his favorite stunts is to act like a character in a movie. Mimicking Jim Carrey is always a hit.
If a teenager is really upset and mouthing off, try something as subtle as raising your eyebrows and saying, "Excuse me? Do I speak to you that way?" Or, "Whoa, do you want to try that again?" suggests Jane Bluestein, an Albuquerque educator and author of Parents, Teens and Boundaries (Health Communications, 1993). By using a light comeback, the teen doesn't feel put down and the parent leaves the door for communication open, she says. Yet, the parent has made it clear that obnoxious behavior won't be accepted.
Humor can be used to create win-win situations, Bluestein says. A parent should not insist on being "right." For example, if a 5-year-old child blames an imaginary friend for drawing on the wall, try saying, "Well, then. You and your imaginary friend will have to clean that up." Or "That's really silly since you have to clean it up." The real issue is getting the wall cleaned up, she says. With a playful approach, a power struggle is avoided and the task gets done.
Humor can get a kid's attention and encourage your child to cooperate, says Charles Smith, a professor in the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University. "Humor clears the deck of the strong emotions the child is feeling. You can then move ahead to what you have to do," he says. "Kids who have laughed are more receptive to you than those who are sullen."
If you're getting your kids dressed in the morning or ready for bed, approach it with humor. For example, pretend to be a funny monster, Smith suggests. Use puppets or props.
Try donning Groucho glasses, a clown nose, or a funny hat, suggests Loretta LaRoche, president of The Humor Potential, Inc., in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Sing kids instructions to brush their teeth, or dance with children to their rooms to clean up. A John Philip Sousa march in the morning is a surefire way to motivate kids to move along, she says.
One morning, Beth Lefevre, a parenting instructor with Educational Systems in Boca Raton, Florida, tried numerous attempts to get her 12-year-old son out of bed. Finally, she turned to humor. Lefevre started snoring loudly. Her son grumbled, "You think you are really funny." Then Lefevre put her fingers in her nose. Her son cracked up. It turns out, her son was upset that she'd been out of town all weekend. Lefevre knew she had to do something out of the ordinary to get him to open up.
Sometimes parents take their child's behavior, or misbehavior, too personally, says pediatrician Tim Jordan. "Parents lose their sense of humor when they make too many judgments and look at the negative," he says. When parents are constantly trying to "fix" their kids, they parent from fear, not joy. Avoid putting out to kids critical messages that are masked as humor.
"You have to be very careful with humor. It's a very sharp blade that can cut both directions," says family professor Charles Smith of Kansas State. Don't use humor when emotions are too high. If the exchange is too intense, there is a risk that the humor will fuel more anger.
On the other hand, assess the situation and determine if humor can provide a way out of an argument. "If you step in with some humorous quip, it provides a distraction that allows two people to take flight from conflict. It's a great excuse to back off," Smith says. Timing is crucial. Sometimes the funny bone wants to be tickled, sometimes it doesn't. Pay attention to the temperament and sensitivity of a child, he says.
Some families develop traditions of watching funny movies together. In educational consultant Michele Borba's household, for example, Chevy Chase flicks are a favorite. Long car trips are broken up with jokes; cartoons cover the refrigerator.
Borba suggests writing down funny family stories, or even starting a joke journal. Creating inside, family jokes is a great way to bond. Retell the stories at family gatherings. "Kids love stories about themselves," she says. However, be careful not to tell a story that you think is funny but might embarrass the child. You need to be very protective about each child's sense of self-respect.
Have each family member share his or her own embarrassing moment. Or play the "hot potato" storytelling game, in which each person makes up a part of a story until it becomes a grand farce.
When her 12-year-old son was just 3, parenting instructor Beth Lefevre started a bedtime ritual of sharing the best, worst, and silliest thing that happened that day. "It's not a time to give a lesson. It's a total listening experience," she says. While her son could always come up with the silliest thing, it was harder for Lefevre at first. "I realized I must be taking life way too seriously," Lefevre says. Now, she looks for humor in her daily routine, making mental notes of funny things throughout the day that she can share with her son at night.