Kids develop at different rates. Their sense of humor can develop at different rates, too. If your child is having trouble understanding jokes, it might be that your child is one of the kids who just take longer to “get” different kinds of jokes.
One common reason kids don’t understand jokes is because the jokes aren’t age-appropriate. Think about the jokes your child has struggled with. Do they involve word play or twists in logic that might be too sophisticated for kids that age?
Many jokes involve puns, rhymes, and other language skills. Punchlines often include words or phrases that can have more than one meaning. Trouble understanding age-appropriate jokes could be a sign kids are struggling to learn how to think flexibly.
Here are examples of types of jokes and the skills kids need to make sense of them.
Words or Phrases With Double Meanings
Why did the student eat his homework? Because the teacher told him it was a piece of cake.
Kids who are more concrete in their use of language may have trouble thinking about words or phrases that have more than one meaning. To get this joke, kids need to keep both meanings of “piece of cake” in mind: a tasty treat and a task that’s easy to do.
Rhyming and Other Word Play
What time do ducks wake up? At the quack of dawn.
Logic and Critical Thinking
What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple? Finding half a worm.
To “get” this joke, the listener has to think about where the other half of the worm might be. (In your mouth, after taking a big bite of the apple. Ew.)
These kinds of jokes ask kids to see things from different perspectives. One classic example shows a man stranded on a tiny desert island as another man floats toward him in a tiny boat. In this two-panel cartoon, one man is yelling “Boat!” while the other yells “Land!” Each wants what the other has.
Some kids have trouble shifting gears and thinking about things in different ways. They might need more help or practice to learn social and emotional skills, like seeing things from another person’s perspective.
There can be other reasons kids struggle with getting jokes. For example, trouble with focus could be a factor. A punchline might not make sense if your child is easily distracted and misses a key detail. Trouble waiting for the punchline can also be an issue for some kids who learn and think differently.
Sometimes trouble with jokes can be part of a larger challenge with learning or development.
If you’re concerned about what you’re seeing, talk with your child’s teacher or health care provider. See if they think this is a or if it could be something else.
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About the author
About the author
Julie Rawe is the special projects editor at Understood.
Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.