5 Tips To Help Your Child Be Funny, and Not Hurtful.

You probably know that today is April Fool’s Day, but what you may not realize is that variations of this holiday have been celebrated since the Roman Empire. When you think about it, it’s not really surprising that we continue to celebrate practical jokes, or that today kicks off National Humor Month-an entire month devoted to the things that make us laugh.

Humor plays an important role in forging connections between people. Sharing a laugh with someone is a great way to show that you can relate to them and that your share a perspective on a given topic. A good joke can serve as a great ice breaker during a conversation, and can make others feel more comfortable and relaxed around you. But humor in any social situation also comes with risks.

The least of these risks is that the people around you won’t share your sense of humor, and may be bored or confused by what you find funny. One of the bigger risks is that someone will take offense to what you’ve said, and find your sense of humor hurtful. You’ve got to be careful not to cross a line in social situations–but in the case of humor, the lines often become blurry. That’s one reason why identifying boundaries can be tricky when it comes to humor, especially for children who struggle socially.

It’s not uncommon for jokes to take the form of teasing, which is sometimes classified as funny, and other times viewed as mean and hurtful.  Most of us are able to tell the difference by reading social cues from the people around us. If we mistakenly take a joke too far, we can tell by the reaction we get, and we know that we need to do some quick damage control to keep from looking like a bully.

Children who struggle socially are often unable to gage the responses of their peers in order to judge if a joke is appropriate or not. This is because they usually lack an important tool called theory of mind. Theory of mind refers to a person’s ability to perceive someone else’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. Without it, a child cannot tell if a joke they find funny has the potential to be hurtful to someone else.

Explaining this to a child who doesn’t understand it naturally can be particularly challenging. To help keep your child from crossing a line, we’ve put together these 5 tips:

  1. Talk to your child about the type of jokes that are offensive. Make sure he (or she) is aware that just because something is intended as a joke, does not mean it will be received that way. Make it clear to him (or her) that any joke that uses inappropriate language, or singles out a specific person or group should be avoided.
  2. Discuss the situations in which humor is appropriate. Make sure your child knows that in some situations, his peers will not be open to humor. If he knows someone is upset about a serious subject (a fight with a friend, the loss of a loved one, etc.) then the topic should be addressed in a serious way. While this is a rule that can have exceptions, your child’s best bet is to reserve jokes for relaxed situations where the mood is generally happy.
  3. Encourage your child to test jokes on someone who knows him well. If there is a joke your child finds particularly funny, it’s a good idea for him to test that joke on you or another close family member. This will give him a chance to find out if the joke has the potential to hurt someone’s feelings without the risk of causing a conflict.
  4. Share appropriate jokes. Expose your child to jokes that are universally funny. Try designating a weekly night where everyone in the family shares a joke at dinner. This will give your child an idea of the kind of jokes people enjoy, and will give him another chance for feedback on his own jokes.
  5. Stress the importance of apologies.  Even people with great social skills and senses of humor sometimes slip up and say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Make sure that your child knows that if he slips up, saying “I’m just kidding” will not undo the damage. Even if he does not understand why his friend or classmate was upset by something he considers funny, apologizing is the right thing to do since his words caused someone’s feelings to be hurt.

Humor is a valuable part of life and can be a much appreciated addition to conversations with peers. Even if your child struggles to understand the boundaries of humor, you shouldn’t discourage him from indulging in humor at the right time in the right setting. April Fool’s Day provides a great opportunity for you to discuss these topics with your child, and hopefully share a few laughs throughout the day!


Isa Marrs is the Founder and Executive Director of the Where I Can Be Me® social skills program. She is a board-certified speech-language pathologist who specializes in pragmatic language (social skills) disorders in children. Read More