“I Get It!”: Tracking Socio-cognitive Development in Children Through Their Sense of Humor

James Belarde//

“The size of a man’s understanding can be justly measured by his mirth.” -Samuel Johnson

“what did the doctor say to the platypus? sir you are in quite a pickle.” Scratching your head at that joke? Then try this one with a built-in explanation: “there was two fish in a tank and one of the fish said do you know how to drive this thing BECAUSE THE FISH ARE DRIVEING THE TANK IN A WAR.” Still confused? Maybe one more will help clarify what’s going on. “What person just talks and talks and talks[?] A TEACHER !!!!”

If it isn’t abundantly clear from the grammar and spelling, these jokes were all written by kids. Featured on the Twitter account Kids Write Jokes, they were submitted by real children trying their best to tell a joke. Whether a retelling of a classic or an entirely new absurd creation, each attempt usually results in a hilariously botched effort that still produces laughter. But what is perhaps most impressive about them is the growing grasp of joke structure they display. And while the development of a sense of humor likely isn’t at the top of many parents’ list of important milestones (excluding clown parents of course), the process is closely tied to a child’s progress in understanding the world. Children enjoy and create humor using concepts as they master them.

In my next article I’ll examine the importance of this in the use of play therapy. But for this piece, I’d like to briefly illustrate a few milestones in development which often come with stereotyped comic behaviors. According to renowned child psychologist and author Dr. Lawrence Kutner, the pattern of finding humor in cognitive concepts as they are mastered persists well into young adulthood.1 And it often starts with the most famous comedy routine in history: peek-a-boo.

“Kou-Kou” (two children playing peek-a-boo), painting by Georgios Jakobides, 1895. Wikimedia Commons

Object permanence is the technical term for the understanding that people and things continue to exist when outside our immediate perception. Even though I can’t see the work waiting for me back in lab over the weekend, it nevertheless (unfortunately for me) exists. Of course, this is something we take for granted, but it is a major cognitive hurdle for babies. In the first months of life, if a baby can’t see or hear something, it doesn’t exist to them. But around 7-8 months old, they begin to understand otherwise and display that familiar infectious laughter at a game of peek-a-boo. When a parent hides their face behind a blanket, rather than be distressed that mommy or daddy has vanished into oblivion, the baby knows they’re only hiding and awaits their reappearance. When this expected result occurs, the baby giggles. The laughter shows that they “get it,” both the joke and the underlying concept.

As with any joke, this can be carried too far and cause distress, particularly when the baby’s understanding of object permanence is still new. If a parent tries to heighten the anticipation and get more laughs by staying hidden for longer, they run the risk of creating tears instead.1 This is because the seemingly denied expectation of the parent’s reappearance creates too much tension in the child still developing a sense of object permanence. But after some consoling, and once the game is brought back within their range of understanding, the baby will giggle hysterically again.

As the infant advances into toddler territory, they not only laugh at things they find funny but try making others laugh with their own routines. They do this both by copying jokes they see, often from parents, and creating novel jokes in the hopes of eliciting laughs. And these jokes again illustrate a developing understanding of their world. After gaining better motor control of their bodies, they start partaking in physical humor. For example, some one-year olds will endlessly plop themselves on their bottom in a slapstick fall to get laughs from an audience after mastering standing.

As they reach two, toddlers will further demonstrate a grasp on the societal norms of the world around them. When they start potty-training, children will find unending joy in joking with the taboo of related words like “poopy” or pretending to use the restroom in places they’ve learned are inappropriate. And while these tendencies might upset parents struggling to see the humor, they are an important indicator of the cognitive progress the child is making in learning these rules. It’s the same as when toddlers learn to dress themselves. The reason many run around the house with underwear on their heads or socks on their arms hoping for a laugh is because they know that’s not where the clothing belongs. It’s funny because they’re breaking learned rules and expressing mastery by deliberately undermining them. The idea is similar when a child laughs uproariously at nonsense words once they’ve started to speak.1

In one fascinating study on early humor production, researchers saw these patterns follow a predictable trajectory, not only with the types of humor children produce, but how they produce them.2 Using a combination of surveys and observed parent-child play, they found that children between the ages of one and two predominately copy jokes they see, while three-year olds branch out and make more novel jokes. Furthermore, they found that younger children primarily relied on object-based humor (using a pot as a hat), while the older group would participate in more conceptual and label-based humor (joking that the cat says moo, or calling a shoe a cookie, respectively). Again, this followed the expected cognitive development of the child, as the older children with stronger verbal skills were already grasping more language-based categorization concepts than the younger group.

Another study followed this progress into middle childhood by looking at five- and nine-year olds and how creating and interpreting jokes for their peers evinced increasing mastery of theory of mind.3 Though too complicated to go into detail here, theory of mind, which typically appears by age four, is the understanding that others can have thoughts and beliefs that differ not only from our own but also from objective reality. This is of course an indispensable cognitive concept in creating more complicated humor, which requires a prediction of how another will perceive the joke. This research found that while both age groups could explain why they found jokes from their peers funny, the nine-year old children were significantly better at accurately identifying the joke writer’s intention regardless of how funny they found the joke. In other words, the researchers conclude they have a more honed theory of mind. Once again, an evolving sense of humor provides clues to the underlying maturation of a child’s mental capacities, as it has since early infancy.

So if you’re flipping through the Kids Write Jokes book and struggling to understand the humor in “why was 10 afraid of 20[?] because 20 is 10 times more than 10,” try asking a nine-year old to explain it to you.

Featured image  by Shanice McKenzie from Pexels


  1. Kutner, Lawrence. “Humor As a Key to Child Development.” Psych Central, 2016, https://psychcentral.com/lib/humor-as-a-key-to-child-development/. Accessed on 26 Oct. 2018.
  2. Hoicka, E., and Akhtar, N. “Early humour production.” British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 2012; 30:586-603.
  3. Kielar-Turska, M., and Białecka-Pikul, M. “Generating and Understanding Jokes by Five- And Nine-Year-Olds as an Expression of Theory of Mind.” Polish Psychological Bulletin. 2009; 40(4):163-169


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