The Joys of Letting Kids be Inappropriate


Co-parenting under any circumstance has difficult moments, but in one household, even when parenting styles are misaligned, there is usually motivation by each parent to occasionally bend on at least some values in the name of preserving a semblance of a peaceful and united parenting front.

When marriages end, a parade of therapists, court system employees, attorneys, and others offer no shortage of advice for dealing with big rock decisions — how to divide parenting time, how to ensure children are financially supported, what school district is gonna be the “home” district, how do you divide holidays equitably? Those questions, while large in scope, at least typically come with a playbook negotiated through the court system. 

But what about the mundanity of day-to-day parenting decisions? There’s often no guide when parents who were previously coupled and made nearly all minor in-the-moment decisions in tandem are suddenly individuals in charge of their own households. That dynamic is simultaneously freeing and immensely complicated.

The mother of my children and I want what’s best for our kids, and have both created loving, comfortable environments that the kids feel safe in. We are largely in agreement about the “big issues.” But little things — like what we consider appropriate or inappropriate behaviors — often cause disagreements. When I got a text from her that said, “Isla is singing Baby Got Back pretty much word for word,” my natural instinct was to be proud. It’s a great song!

I soon learned, though, that moment wasn’t shared as a funny “kids are hilarious” situation, and instead was her probing for where our 6-year-old could’ve learned such a thing. I immediately panicked, realizing that there were probably a half dozen different ways my daughter could’ve learned Baby Got Back, with my encouragement, when she was with me.

I don’t want my kids to be rude or offensive. But I also don’t correct them much when they’re talking about gross things, especially my daughter. During an appearance on Pete Dominick’s podcast in 2019, comedian Nikki Glaser discussed the tired and easily disproved stereotype in comedy that “women aren’t funny.”

“People say that women aren’t funny,” Glaser said. “And there aren’t as many female comics, because you lay the groundwork for someone to become a comedian early on. Your brain has to be a comedic brain, and it has to be encouraged to be so. So when little boys are making jokes, what do you make jokes about? Farts and poop. And everyone goes, “tehehe, that’s silly, that’s funny.” When girls make jokes about farts and poop, because that’s what’s funny to a child, you get shamed for it. So, the thing that’s funny to a child inherently is not of access to you when you’re a young girl, because that’s gross. So you don’t develop a sense of humor, because all your jokes are taken from you.”

As someone who has flailed away at a standup comedy open mic night once, I wouldn’t say I’m trying to steer my daughter into that (or any) profession, unless she has a passion for it. But I do want her to continue developing a sense of humor, even a sometimes inappropriate one, and be as confident telling good or bad jokes as any boy is. There are immense benefits to laughing and making others laugh, and it takes trial and error to get good at those skills.

Dr. Ashley Soderlund, a child development psychologist, notes the importance of humor in a child’s ability to develop resilience and relieve or manage stress. 

Edutopia, a K-12 education foundation founded by George Lucas, points out that humor in kids stimulates goal-oriented motivation, helps students with retention, and helps build a sense of community in classrooms. 

A 2007 study published by researchers at UCLA discussed the positive impact humor can have on children dealing with pain and illness. Psychology Today notes that repeated laughter has benefits for circulation and lung and muscle health. 

So, as parents, how can we give our kids the freedom to develop their sense of humor without letting them go too far? Nemours Pediatric Health System has some helpful tips that include:

  • Model appropriate humor for them by telling funny jokes, laughing, and not getting worked up over small accidents like spilling a drink.
  • Encourage their humor by acknowledging and laughing at them when they’re funny, drawing silly pictures with them, or playing along with jokes they are making or funny stories they’re telling.
  • Point out when other people are funny, and encourage them to share their own funny observations, even with other adults. 
  • Create a “humor-rich environment” by having funny or creative books, comics, art, movies, or TV shows available.
  • Use boundaries to keep them from making mean-spirited or hurtful jokes or to point out appropriate times or places for certain jokes (like bathroom humor), but explain those boundaries in ways that are inclusive and respectful of their developing intellects.

Dr. Larry Kutner, a clinical psychologist, author, and former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, notes that humor and jokes are important to kids developing language skills and learning and understanding cultural norms, including what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t.

My daughter, like many kids, often pretends to be a parrot and mimics every word I say to try and annoy me. My go-to move to win the game is saying something like, “my daddy is so cool and handsome!” — a line she would rather die than repeat. When she was playing it recently, I said my typically game-ending line and, without missing a beat (and staying in character in the weird monotone robot-parrot hybrid voice she does), Isla droned hilariously, “… I am not fully trained yet.” Her ability to talk conversationally and think improvisationally has clearly improved because she so often jokes around, experiments with words, and is figuring out how to appropriately interject her quirky sense of humor.

A few minutes later, I watched her pick her nose and eat it. Like all of us, she’s still a work in progress.

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