My daughters and I made up a game. It was likely born out of necessity, while I was brushing tangled hair from chaos to calm and two of us stood in front of the bathroom mirror. The game goes like this: one of us says “This is how I smile” and then we make a ridiculous, exaggerated face that is not any more pretty than it is a smile. We take turns doing this until, finally, after fits of giggles over our silly faces, one of us decides to give a real smile. The other player then responds “Aw, that’s a good one. I like that,” or something else equally pleasant and complimentary.
According to an article in the Washington Post, this is the kind of silliness that will help my girls feel empowered. I sure hope so because it’s not a coincidence; I work hard to keep the silly alive in our home. I’ve always believed it’s a trait that will help my girls thrive.
I’m not the only mom who wants her daughters to feel empowered. Today we all encourage our girls to run the world, to be leaders in the classroom, to excel in athletics. Encouraging humor is not always on this list, but it seems it should be.
As children, many of us felt funny-shamed or loud-shamed or some other shame related to trying to be ourselves, courtesy of the adults in our lives. When we were growing up, it was more important for girls to be lady-like than funny. At the same time, boys were given more leeway with being loud and funny than we girls were.
Now we are the adults. Maybe we’re bitter about our own girlhoods and that’s why we care so much about this, but we know how it feels to be shamed. We want our daughters to have a better experience than we did.
Writer and mother Jen Mann is known for her sense of humor. She authors the blog People I Want to Punch in the Throat, has written several books based on that theme, and has published several anthologies of funny mom stories. Though it’s what she’s known for now, Mann’s humor was not always well received when she was growing up. “Teachers felt like I was a smart aleck and sassy,” she says. “The boys definitely didn't get reprimanded as often as I did. They weren't shushed as often as I was. They could say offensive things and teachers/adults would roll their eyes. I'd say the same thing and I'd be told to act like a lady.”
I asked my own daughters, ages seven and 11, if they felt the rules for humor were different for boys than they are for them. They said no, that “funny is funny.” In a (ridiculously) non-scientific poll, I asked a group of parents if they treat their daughters differently than their sons when it comes to humor. They didn’t feel like they did. What concerned them the most was that their kids, regardless of gender, knew what humor was appropriate outside the home versus what humor needed to stay at home.
Despite those answers, parents feel passionate about this topic – especially mothers. It seems the bias we experienced as children stayed with us. Even if our girls haven’t encountered it yet, studies show there is still a gender bias when it comes to humor.
Leveling the playing field
Researchers at the UC San Diego Department of Psychology ran experiments to see if there really was a difference in humor between men and women. The study asked participants to caption cartoons from The New Yorker, after which another group ranked the captions. The men scored only tenths of a point higher than the women, and yet when study participants guessed the gender of a caption’s author, “unfunny captions were more often misattributed to women and funny captions were more often misattributed to men.”
That doesn’t mean we need to give our girls an expectation of bias; if our daughters feel like they have a level playing field let’s not ruin it by suggesting to them that they don’t. However, if we know that’s the world they are likely up against, it’s important to support their humorous side. By doing so we can give them the proper tools to combat a bias they can’t control.
Our own experiences have taught us that encouraging our daughters to be funny or witty or even goofy might help them discover more about who they want to be in life. It’s not just our opinions: science is on our side because psychologists view humor as a beneficial character trait, too.
The science of funny
Psychologists group humor with a set of strengths (along with gratitude, hope, and spirituality) under the virtue of transcendence. These are things that help us connect to the world around us and give us the context we need to provide meaning to life. An attitude of playfulness and good humor can improve our lives no matter our age.
Viewing humor in a positive way is a fairly new point of view among psychologists. In the past, humor was seen as a defense mechanism to hide behind or a way to assert superiority. Those are not desirable traits for a “lady” so it’s no wonder we were shushed as girls. Today, however, humor is not only considered a positive trait, but it’s considered an essential human behavior.
Janet M. Gibson, a professor of cognitive psychology at Grinnell College, wrote an article for The Conversation in which she explains how humans have the unique ability to reflect on our pasts, present, and futures. This is called time perspective and how we view it can impact our outlook on life. Her work shows that “people who use humor in positive ways held positive past time perspectives.” Their sense of humor allowed them to look back on their life experiences and feel good, even about the bad experiences.
Learning to use humor early in life gives our girls a tool to cope with the inevitable social aches and pains that accompany growing up. Gibson also found that people who seek humor in their lives seem to focus more on the pleasant aspects of day-to-day life.
Another reason cultivating humor isn’t just about raising a comedian is that getting the joke is just as important as making the joke. Either way it may point to above average intelligence as studies indicate humor and intelligence are closely linked.
In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Gil Greengross shares a study involving comedians where he “found a strong positive correlation between intelligence and humor production ability. The smarter a comedian is, the better he or she is in producing high quality humor.” We can infer that this finding would hold true for understanding humor as well as producing it since an audience is necessary to discern what works and what doesn’t.
Flex the comedic muscle
You can strengthen your daughter’s funny bones even if you aren’t confident in your own comedic impulses. If you are truly unsure of where to start or how to find the funny, turn to the pros. Some sitcoms for kids have great writing and can help fine tune your ear to the funny, as well has your daughter’s. "Odd Squad" on PBS is one show I can always count on for clever writing and appropriate story lines. Watching others be funny can give your daughter ideas about how to try her own humor in real life.
Modeling behavior is one of the best ways for our children to adopt it, regardless of the topic or level of expertise. Let yourself be silly with your daughter if you want her to embrace her inner goofball. You don’t have to be a comedian to let your daughter see the fun of uninhibited silliness.
Laughing at her jokes can also give her a boost (even the made up ones your first grader tells you). Fake laughter isn’t the goal here, so praise will do if you can’t eke out a chuckle. Hearing a “that was funny” from you may be enough to help her feel brave the next time she attempts humor. She’ll make some gaffes as she works out what works for her and what doesn’t. Don’t sweat it if your precious princess is prone to making fart jokes or other quips that make you blush. When she’s being a a little toot herself you have the opportunity to teach her the difference between humor at home versus humor in public, or engage her in a conversation about knowing your audience. It may also help to remind her that not everyone has the same sense of humor she does and some of her peers may not “get” her (or she, them).
Mann reminds her daughter that “you don’t need everyone to like you,” you need “just a few good people who like you.” She uses her own experience as a prime example. Mann lets her daughter see the negative comments she’s received online to show her that finding your tribe is more important than making everyone happy.
Mann has also published a young adult book called "My Lame Life: Queen of the Misfits" because she wanted a way to let young girls know they don’t have to worry if they’re told they're “funny and loud and a lot” and to encourage them to “embrace their a lot-ness” as part of who they are.
To be funny out loud is a risk: what if what you think is funny, everyone else thinks is not? Being laughed at instead of with is the stuff of nightmares. Yet falling flat is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to do better next time. Teaching what is appropriate instead of shaming will help girls learn social cues, not supposed gender norms.
As girls, perhaps those of us who are parents now felt we were ready to take risks that we weren’t allowed to take. We feel compelled to give our daughters that opportunity because successfully taking risks not only builds confidence, but builds the skills needed to judge situations on the fly. The bonus is that practicing that confidence makes it easier to stand up for yourself when necessary – a skill we all want our daughters to have.
Encouraging a sense of humor as our girls grow allows them to gain confidence outright, not just when compared to boys. Allowing our daughters to be free of the stigma that surrounded us as funny girls gives them permission to be themselves, whether they choose to be funny or loud ... or not.
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