Humor serves many purposes for children and parents.

When a child laughs at himself, he shows a strong self-image. Other children like him and adults feel responsive toward him. In fact, humor can be one of the surest ways of gathering support.

For a child, as for all of us, humor may arrive unexpected. When a parent varies the usual rhythms of peek-a-boo, the child may giggle.

Tickling, which is more amusing when a pattern is disrupted, can relieve tension and change a mood.

Humor depends on a cognitive capacity to store and compare memories, and to develop a general sense of what ordinarily happens.

For a child, the fun of nonsense is the satisfaction of knowing the difference between what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Humor can also be used to make an intolerable situation tolerable. “You are teasing me. I can take it. I can laugh.” A child’s laughter softens the teaser, who is then more likely to be on his side.

At 3, a child can already use humor to disarm a parent’s anger about something the child knows he shouldn’t have done. Silliness or teasing can turn anger into tolerance when the child shows that he recognizes his error.

Humor and laughter are common forms of communication among siblings and peers. In their fantasy play, children use humor to try out and understand the limits of an imaginary situation, and to distinguish it from expectable reality.

At 5 and 6, as children give up their fantasies of being invincible and are forced by their new cognitive accomplishments to face how small and relatively defenseless they are, laughter can stem from fright.

At its best, humor heals, engages and teaches. When a child reacts to an event with laughter and humor, it makes the world laugh with him.

GIGGLING WITH A PURPOSE

Use humor to defuse tension. When a child has pushed parents over the edge, humor can be a safe way to regain their ground. putting a humorous slant on behavior that still must be faced, parents model effective ways for child to handle feelings.

Turn anger into laughter. A parent who can help an angry child see the humor in his position without making him feel ridiculed is showing him how to calm down. When parent and child can laugh together, they become close again.

Expect your child to laugh when somebody slips on a banana peel. Laughter can be seen as a way of handling the anxiety that another child’s injury sets up: “Will he be OK? What if that happened to me? Maybe it will.”

A parent who understands such a reaction can respond to inappropriate laughter with reassurance: “It is scary to see someone hurt. But laughing won’t help. We can help him get fixed and then we’ll all feel better.”

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by e-mail to:

[email protected]

— New York Times Syndicate