What's so Funny About That?
There was a lot of talk this past week about what costume everyone will be wearing on Thursday. That talk took place among staff as much as it did among children. Seasoned Wornick students know that Thursday will be so totally different from any other day of the year. We will all be playing – adults and children – in costume, singing silly songs, shouting during the reading of the Scroll of Esther. And there will be the Purim spiels – plays that evoke deep belly laughs from everyone.
While scholars debate the literal truth of the story in the Book of Esther, this book has set the central tone of the holiday of Purim. It is a farcical, whimsical tale. The Talmud referencing two central characters from the story, calls for celebration, such that participants cannot distinguish between Mordechai and Haman. There are some serious expectations to the holiday – like giving gifts to the poor, exchanging gifts with friends (mishloach manot), and a celebratory feast. But the overall tenor of the holiday is one of playfulness.
In the spirit of the holiday, I've been thinking a lot lately about the role of humor in the education of children. Most scholars agree that humor involves the comprehension or production of “incongruities.” This means that the recognition of two items that do not typically go together engenders humor.
Children go through various stages of humor development beginning with awareness of word meanings. This is why first and second graders really like riddles where they can apply their growing vocabulary knowledge. Eventually, riddles become too predictable and children move into humor that represents their growing awareness of different personalities and different types of people. When this awareness emerges, the adults in their lives need to help them distinguish between humor and disrespect.
There are so many educational benefits to teaching and nurturing humor in young people. Humor requires creativity, high emotional intelligence, and the ability to perceive multiple meanings and perspectives in a situation. Retelling jokes calls upon memory, and memory provides the structure to retrieve information to make connections to new concepts. Much as an artist or a writer notices his/her surroundings in a way that most of us fail to see, the humorist too pays attention to what others miss. There is also the benefit of humility, for the child or adult who can laugh at his/her own foibles becomes more accessible and humble. Finally, the child with a healthy sense of humor can develop the ability to manage his/her emotional state as well as that of others.
Parents and teachers also need to be mindful of the usefulness of humor. A well-timed joke or a silly comment can diffuse a particularly tense moment or reframe a difficult situation. Let's keep laughing well beyond Purim.
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