Psychologists say that keeping that sense of humor as you discipline your growing child makes your child feel connected and reduces conflict. Humor is about connection, and a positive relationship can help when you’re trying to calm a tantrum or illicit help around the house.
While there are situations that involve safety where a stern word is undoubtedly the right way to handle the situation, most parenting conflicts are much lower stakes. If every infraction results in a long discussion about how your child messed up, it can harm your relationship.
But, I want my kids to listen without question
Think about that again. Do you really want to teach your kids to accept authority without question? What someone in an authoritative position at schools makes an unfair or unsafe request? What if their future boss asks them to do something unethical?
Children are naturally curious, and recognizing that, and accounting for it can be significantly more effective if your goal is to raise self-sufficient adults.
Parenting experts say that parenting in an authoritarian way, where control and harsh discipline are the norms can be more harmful than good. Children raised in homes that are strict and unresponsive to their emotional needs can develop chronic stress and anxiety. Also, it can make them less able to make their own decisions as adults and worsen behavior problems.
Start with humor and go forward from a place of shared experience
Humor can relieve the stress of a situation. Parents, like everyone else, don’t make the best decisions when they are flustered and angry. When your child knows they’ve disappointed you, they experience a rise in stress in anticipation of your reaction. Being appropriately silly can help alleviate the stress for both of you.
A 2017 study in The Journal of Nonverbal Behavior shows that shared laughter is what will benefit your relationship. Sharing a laugh means that both people have similar worldviews, and acknowledging our similarities is one of the best ways to strengthen bonds.
Ensure that you are sharing a laugh with your children by avoiding sarcasm. Young children are very literal and are unable to pick up on the nuances of sarcasm. It is likely to come across as teasing, and they may feel hurt or ridiculed.
Furthermore, parents should never use teasing as a form of discipline. Your children learn best by watching you, so if you demonstrate that it’s acceptable to tease people for their mistakes and shortcomings, they will do the same. Focus instead on supporting your child in becoming a kind member of society.
Laughter isn’t the endpoint of the discipline. Once the stress has dissipated, you can respond in a way that is forward-thinking and helpful rather than punitive. Children benefit from understanding the reasons you asked them to do something, or from an explanation of rules. Rather than teaching unquestioning obedience, teach your children to evaluate a situation rationally, and choose the best course.
Humor for different age groups
If you can find a way to approach parenting challenges with humor, you will help to diffuse the negative emotions and turn it into a positive experience. The type of humor you use will vary based on the age of the child and your desired outcome.
Young children: preschool and early elementary
Very young children respond well to the gamification of necessary activities and to reverse psychology. If you want your three-year-old to get dressed, but they are insisting that a bare behind is acceptable at the library, rather than threaten not to take them on an outing, try humor. Have a get-dressed race with their siblings, or even with you. Just make sure to let the tiny human win at least some of the time.
Using reverse psychology can also work well with this age group. If your child is refusing to eat, setting out a healthy snack, and asking them to protect it from the “apple monster,” who wants to gobble it up, may encourage them to try some. My three-year-old is a proper goblin if she’s hungry, but young kids can’t always connect the unpleasant feeling with needing to eat, so we use this regularly with her.
Having a go-to song or jingle for situations that require redirecting can be a great way to break the tension and get your young child to comply with your requests. In our house, we have a “no-song” for the times that our children refuse to complete a task. They hate the song, so when we start singing it, they’ll typically jump into action to get us to stop.
With a very young child, once you’ve achieved the desired behavior, a simple statement is all the followup you need. When my daughter gets dressed in the morning, we are sure to tell her that now that she listened, we get to do something fun. When we are asking her to get dressed the next time, we remind her that if she puts clothes on, we get to have a fun day.
When your preteen starts to roll their eyes and huff at you about doing their chores, it’s best to let that brief display of annoyance go. Some of that resistance is the natural development of this age group as they begin to assert their independence. If the chores go undone, however, humor may help remind them of their responsibilities.
If your ten-year-old forgets to feed the dog in the morning, avoid the urge to have a long discussion about household citizenship. Try writing him a note from the dog explaining how hungry Fido was all day long. Have the dog ask your child to please remember his food tomorrow. Help your child connect the real consequence to his forgetfulness.
If your children are arguing in public, begin singing. Don’t hold back. Sing your favorite 80’s rock song loudly. They will become so embarrassed and refocus on trying to get us to stop. Suddenly, they share the same worldview and are on the same team.
Once the humor has helped to diffuse the situation, ask your children if they understand why you made a particular request. If they can articulate the importance of compliance, you don’t need to go further. If they don’t understand, you can explain the rationale and ask them to repeat it to you to check for understanding.
Teenagers also benefit from parenting that includes a healthy dose of humor. Research shows a correlation between parenting styles that utilize humor and teenagers’ self-esteem and life satisfaction.
Teenagers crave independence, and using humor in place of psychological control tactics can help to support them as they teeter between the adult and child world. Rather than providing advice, your job is to provide guidance and support as they make their own decisions. This approach can also serve to remind them that you are both on the same team.
Recently, our teenage daughter made an error in judgment. She went to a movie with a boy that we didn’t know. Then, without telling us, she went to his house. When an expected snowstorm swept through, she called to ask if she could stay the night. We had no idea where she was, had never met this boy, and didn’t want her driving in the storm. Ultimately, my husband rescued her and brought her home.
Our daughter was able to articulate that her reasoning was faulty because she was looking starry-eyed at an attractive boy. She said her lizard brain kicked in, and she stopped thinking about consequences. Lizard brain is the term we’ve adopted in our house to describe the lack of long-term planning in underdeveloped minds.
The way she took responsibility and joked about the situation, while also acknowledging that our position was more than fair, meant that we didn’t have to have an extensive discussion about it. She learned from the experience.
With teenagers, especially as they edge closer to adulthood, using a bit of humor in your discussions about sexuality and dating can help get the message across in a more comfortable way.
If our daughter hadn’t articulated her error so well, we’d have explained the safety concerns we had, and given her some questions to ask herself next time to avoid making a similar mistake.
We also advocate taking a moment away from a date if they ask you to change locations so that you can take a moment for introspection and thwart the effect of hormones on your rationality. The goal isn’t to stop teenagers from growing and maturing, but to teach them how to navigate life themselves.
The goal of discipline is to guide children to make sound independent decisions as they grow. Sometimes, as parents, we lose our cool and our discipline results in shaming or ridicule. When that happens, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, apologize to your children and move on. You’re human and get to make mistakes just like your kids.
Humor is an antidote to shame; it reinforces the human connection between you and your children. When you are connected and on the same team, having a conversation about changing behavior becomes easy.
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