April Fools’ Day is a holiday for jokers.
But some jokes can cause pain.
That may because because “a lot of comedy comes from pain,” says Cory Cavin, a New York City comedian who has worked at Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and the Upright Citizens Brigade. As a quip attributed to Mel Brooks puts it: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”
And kids aren’t immune from mean jokes: telling them, or having their feelings hurt.
So how can parents start good conversations with kids about what’s funny, and what’s just mean?
At the elementary age, Cavin says, parents begin to teach kids what makes a joke mean. “If you’re being mean,” Cavin says, “you’re usually ostracizing someone.” So parents can help kids ask themselves these questions when they hear or tell a joke: Does this joke include everyone? Or does it leave someone out?
Middle-school kids, Cavin says, are at the age where “they stop being cute and try to be adults, but they don’t know how to do it.” So parents can expect to see “a lot of failed attempts” at humor, as kids figure out what’s funny and what’s not. This is a good time, says Cavin, to introduce them to “some well-crafted comedy that’s not mean, to help them develop a sense of humor,” like Jim Gaffigan or Jerry Seinfeld. And to talk about what “we find funny as a family together, and start to build camaraderie” around humor.
High school kids, says Cavin, can start to use humor as a tool. It may be a way for them to express their opinions and independence, and even navigate tough social situations: “being able to stand up to things and know you can hold your own with comedy.” Parents can stay in tune with kids by listening to what kids are saying with their jokes, and having conversations about when to use humor, and what kind of humor is appropriate.
At any age, Cavin says, the best jokes are the ones that “bring people together,” instead of leaving someone out, and let as many people as possible feel like they can join in laughing.