How do we help a child who seems to have no sense of humor? Except for our oldest son, who will soon be entering middle school, our entire family has always enjoyed the lighter side of things. Our younger kids are full of fun, and laughter regularly fills our home. By way of contrast, their big brother never seems to be amused by anything. He’s always very serious-minded. I thought it was a phase that would pass, but to this day I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve heard him laugh. I’m concerned about how this will affect him socially. Even more importantly, I want him to enjoy life. Am I right to be concerned? Are there things we can do to encourage and help develop a sense of humor in him?
This problem may not be as serious as you think (no pun intended). Different people have different humor styles. In fact, psychologists have identified as many as fifty variations on this theme. Of these, about eight are common among the general population. It’s good to be aware of this. If you don’t recognize or can’t understand your son’s unique orientation to humor, you may not be able to tell when he’s solemn and when he’s laughing. He may have a dry wit. He may be a master of deadpan. If so, he could be breaking up on the inside and you wouldn’t even know it. So, don’t jump to the conclusion that he’s a humorless bore until you’ve had an opportunity to study his reactions a bit more closely. In most cases a child just needs time and space to discover his own style of humor and develop it in his own way.
You could kick off your investigation – and give your son a nudge in the right direction – by asking him straight out what it is that makes him laugh. If he has trouble verbalizing his answer, make the question a little more concrete. Here’s how. Organize a family humor night. Assign each of the kids to bring something funny to the table. It could be anything: a joke, a picture, a story from a book, or an anecdote about something that happened at school. After sharing some laughs together, give each member of the group a chance to talk about his or her contribution. Ask them how they chose their material. Find out why they think it’s so hilarious. This will give everyone, mom and dad included, a chance to get inside each other’s heads. This is a good way to become better acquainted with different styles of humor.
Remember that in a family setting, differences in age and maturity can make it difficult to share humor. This may sound obvious, but it isn’t always easy to see in everyday life. When the laughter gets rolling people tend to take things for granted. They assume that everybody gets the joke whether they have the required background and experience or not. It’s important, then, to make sure that everyone’s on the same page.
You said that the boy in question is your oldest child, but you didn’t tell us exactly how old. It’s worth bearing in mind that certain types of humor are appropriate to kids within a certain age range. Other kinds of jokes may go over their heads or pass under their radar. You can avoid some very awkward situations if you keep this basic principle in view. If none of this helps, you may need to dig a little deeper. Nearly everyone laughs at one time or another. There can be exceptions to the rule, of course. It’s always possible that your son is one of those rare individuals whose sense of humor has been unnaturally squelched or stunted. This can happen as a result of environmental or circumstantial factors. You can get a good idea of whether he falls into this category by asking yourself a few simple questions. For example, was he subjected to severe trauma at any point in his life? Is there something happening at school or in the neighborhood that might make him feel unsafe? Don’t forget two very important Assets ‐ #5: Caring School Climate and #10: Safety. If these two are missing in your child’s life, he may not feel comfortable enough to laugh or even emote.
How would you characterize your family “culture”? What are the family dynamics in your household? Is everyone else so silly that your son feels a need to counterbalance their shenanigans with a more “realistic” attitude toward life? Is he a perfectionistic first‐born? An analytical “left‐brain” type? If so, it’s possible that humor simply isn’t his strong point.
Bottom line: humor is really just another form of communication. It’s part of our communications skills set. In fact, it would be fair to say that humor and communication are just two sides of the same coin. Just as laughter facilitates talk, so conversation can open windows into the hearts and minds of the people we live with. It can help us understand what really tickles their funny bone. It’s all part of learning to love one another. It goes without saying that communication is fundamental to the health and well‐being of any genuinely thriving family. This is why humor styles have to be developed within the context of family interaction.