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Teaching Your Kids When to Laugh

Image from The Creativity Institute
Image from The Creativity Institute

I carried my tray of empty dishes towards the pass-through counter of the dish-washing room at the Project Patch Youth Ranch.  I had been blabbing with some kids and staff and was one of the last to take my dishes up.  There was a precarious stack of plates, cups and bowls, and I had this foreboding feeling as I approached that it wouldn’t end well for me.  I was able to put my plate and cup on the stack without a problem, but the peace and all conversation in the dining room came to a crashing and abrupt end right after I placed my bowl on top of the leaning tower of bowls.  It was a domino-effect of chaos as the bowls crashed into the cups, and before I knew it there were about 75 bowls and cups crashing across the floor.

The teens were staring at me wondering what I would do.  Would I shout and blame? Would I act like it’s someone else’s problem and leave the cleanup to them?

Instead, I used a great phrase from Curt Shirer, one of our past counselors, and said, “Wow! I sure made that look easy!” We all laughed, and I started cleaning up the mess.  They helped me, teased me, and we got the job done quickly.  This embarrassing and maddening moment was transformed into a chance to connect and have fun.

The event changes, but I’ve come to really appreciate this magical moment in which time stops.  This pause comes right after I do something really stupid or embarrassing in front of a bunch of people.  The audiences seem to hold their breath in a collective gasp as they wonder how I’m going to react to this horrific experience.  The people watching know how they would respond (crawl under ground), but aren’t sure how I’m going to handle it.  I shake off the shock, and then if I’m lucky, I grasp just how funny the situation is and laugh.  This not only brings me relief, it also allows the people around me to laugh, and in some amazing way we feel more connected than before.

There is power in not taking yourself too seriously and being able to handle challenging situations with humor, perspective, and humility.

Our brains are really helpful in protecting us, but not very good at noticing that what just happened was funny.  Even before we can comprehend the full extent of danger, our brain and body react quickly in three ways: fight, flight, and freeze (okay, there is a fourth called fornicate, but let’s not go there).  One of the parts of our brain, the amygdala (watch a 5-minute video on how this part of your brain works)  is responsible for quickly making associations between input (all our senses), and telling our body to react.  It helps us by assessing the situation, and if it is similar in any way to a previous threat, it will jump-start a series of reactions to “protect us”.  This is great when there is an actual threat, but it isn’t good when we incorrectly identify something as a threat that isn’t.  If you remember Pavlov, his bell and the slobbering dogs, the amygdala is at the heart of reacting before we even have time to process.

Our first reaction when we do something stupid or embarrassing is carried out in the amygdala, rather than from a place of logic.  Our brain is rushing to self-protection mode, which many times is the right answer. However, many times our reaction may not be the best long-term way of handling things.  It will bring short-term relief, but come at the cost of long-term effectiveness.

As adults, we learn over time that we can better maintain relationships and protect our reputation if we can slow down our emotional reaction.  Instead of allowing a very impulsive emotional outburst, we can put things into perspective and react in a somewhat positive way. We learn that there are certain times in which laughing and not taking ourselves too seriously is the best reaction.  I’m not saying we are superficial or out of touch emotionally, I am saying that laughter is the best medicine.

Here are some key reasons you should laugh at yourself, and teach your kids to laugh at themselves:

  • It models and helps them experience a key principle; laugh “with” people, not “at” people.
  • Our laughter reduces tension in us and the people around us.
  • It teaches them to look at life from a different perspective.
  • It shows that our first impulse isn’t always the most helpful.
  • It makes life more fun.

Do you remember getting a good laugh from a mistake you made?  What happened and how did laughter transform that situation?  (Comment Below)

2 Comments on “Teaching Your Kids When to Laugh

  1. This story reminds me of a time I was teaching the kids the great art of card house building. We were sitting around the table as one of my sons had reached a 3-level tower, and I was just hovering 2 more cards over my highest tower that I could ever remember… 5-levels!! I was barely breathing and my hands were shaking just slightly as I very carefully went to place the last 2 cards to complete the level. All at once, my son’s tower come tumbling down and he slapped both of his hands onto the table in defeat… This reaction caused my tower to flatten rather swiftly and unceremoniously before me, with me still holding the last 2 cards where they would have been set. We both sat there with a bit of a shocked look on our face, and his turned to instant remorse over having caused the devastation (and maybe a little fear as previous card tower failures had caused tension between the kids in the house a couple different times).
    All the sudden I burst out into laughter; the kind of laughter that brings out the tears in your eyes. The look on his face, the instant flattening of the tower, the frozen in place cards still being carefully held in my hands… it was all just too funny! Pretty soon, we were all sitting around laughing… and then rebuilding our card towers together. I have never forgotten the look of relief on his face when I started laughing. It was a moment of learning for both of us!

    • What a great story about how a situation became a bonding experience rather than something of shame. You captured that pause so well. I can picture you still holding those cards and being baffled. Thanks for sharing.