“Okay, It’s a Little Funny.”

Kids like being funny. They also like saying inappropriate things. In my decade or so working adolescent mental health I have heard MANY funny and inappropriate comments. For instance:

Kid 1: “Which one is Dr. Flanners?
Kid 2: “He’s the bald dude that looks like he crawled out of a walrus’ ass.

Any adult in the vicinity, of course, is forced to respond to such a comment. Their knee-jerk response, often in a sharp, angry tone, goes something like:

Adult: “That’s not funny!

It’s a tough situation for the adult. The kid’s trying to be funny, but is using inappropriate material to accomplish their goal. The adult could call out the fact that the comment is inappropriate, but the kid already knows the material is not appropriate. In fact, that is part of the point. So in the heat of the moment it seems better to judge the comment as not being funny. After all, this judgment cuts to the heart of what the child is trying to accomplish.

As logical as “That’s not funny” seems, it is ineffective for at least 2 reasons:

(1) It is an attack on the child’s abilities (their ability to be funny). This always puts kids (and adults) in a defensive mindset.

(2) It is often not true. Many of the “not funny” things ARE funny. I’ve seen counselors holler “That’s not funny!” with 36 kids (and staff!) laughing riotously all around them. Claiming that something isn’t funny when it probably is funny is insincere. In the long run, insincerity always fails — especially with kids. It may allow you to shut them up, or even control their behavior, but you do so at the cost of eroding a constructive rapport.

A better response to our clever little jokester is:

Just because that’s funny doesn’t mean it is okay to say.

This response has several advantages:

(1) You are affirming the child’s ability to be funny (don’t underestimate the power of affirmation). You are now on the child’s side. You are a fan of their comedic abilities.

(2) It allows you to remain sincere (Hey, inappropriate things sometimes are funny. It does little good to pretend they are not).

(3) Rather than challenging the child’s ability you instead challenge their false belief: “it is okay to say anything as long as it is meant to be funny.” Many kids, and adults, really believe this. You’ve seen it yourself. Some pompous bully says something mean about someone, those around them scoff and roll their eyes, and the bully says: “What? It was only a joke! I was kidding!” Obviously, they think that humor gives them license to say mean and hurtful things (and why shouldn’t they believe this? After all, every major media company blesses it and employs it in many of their entertainment programs).


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