Funny goes too far

Jul 16, 2008 at 11:07 p.m. ET

Before I had kids, when I day dreamed about what my kids might be like, I was certain that my kids would have good senses of humor. Given the slightly off-kilter humor of their parents, I was sure they would be good for the wry and dry laughs as well as the more obvious ones

Boy Making a Face
For the most part, this is true. There are things that we laugh at heartily in this house that others probably would find only marginally humorous, and things other people find worthy of roaring that we barely smirk at. We've had to explain ourselves to some outside the family on more than one occasion.

Nothing to laugh at

However, in the process of the development of these senses of humor, I'm finding it difficult to teach them why and when some joke or laugh goes too far and to stop before going there. Even if something gets us roaring, continually going back to or repeating it can cross that invisible line of too far, be annoying, and even upsetting. I want my kids to laugh and have fun, but they still have to respect boundaries.The trouble is, this line is situational and subjective. What is achingly funny for hours one day may be only marginally humorous the next, then very funny again a week later. How does one tell? Espeically when one is eight and everything is fall-down laughing funny when one gets in that mood. You know the one I am talking about. That very silly, can't pull it together, rolling on the floor, laugh when Mom tries to talk seriously mood.

A lifelong process, and a guideline

I suppose that learning how to identify this invisible line is going to be a lifelong task. I know plenty of adults who have trouble identifying and respecting the line. I've tried telling the boys to look at people's faces when they repeat a joke or a funny gesture, but if they are in that mood, they are too busy laughing and being silly to think to look. I've mentioned different ways a person's body language might change in reaction. These are all bits that are hard to identify and quantify in an objective manner, but are still important in their overall social development. Bits it's going to take time to absorb, internalize, and be able to act upon. But still I had the issue of trying to let the boys know what was funny and what was too much. I finally came up with a general guideline: once is funny, twice is enough, but three times is too far. This means that, for the most part, something is considered funny twice, and they should not go beyond twice. While it is not a perfect guideline — there are adjustments — it seems to work most of the time. Any variations to the guideline are my responsibility to convey, either through continuing the joke myself, of through other non-verbal cues.It's not a perfect solution, to be sure, but it is a start. I love laughing with the kids, and want them to be able to laugh their whole lives through. Helping them understand this difficult, invisible boundary is one way to keep the laughter going.