Some have claimed that laughter is the best medicine. Did you know that scientists have put that phrase to the test and examined the effects of humor and laughter on the human body? The Mayo Clinic reports that laughter-related stress relief brings both short- and long-term benefits. In the short term, laughter stimulates vital organs, lowers blood pressure, and aids circulation and muscle relaxation. Beyond that, the release of stress through laughter can improve our immune system, relieve our pain, and improve our overall mood (“Stress relief from laughter? It’s no joke,” MayoClinic.org, July 29, 2021).
It is encouraging to see science promote something as enjoyable as laughter. So, what does the Bible have to say? How should parents approach laughter and humor with their children?
Young children often are sources of humor and laughter for their families (and themselves!) as they explore the world, make new discoveries, and play with unlimited imaginations. My daughter once decided she would be our waitress for dinner and politely asked me what I wanted to drink. Delighted to have her take my order, I asked for a coffee. You can imagine my surprise—and amusement—when my daughter mustered all her five-year-old seriousness to inform me that her pretend kitchen had no coffee and I would need to make another selection.
As children advance into their teenage years, their humor matures, as well. Instead of simply imagining silly scenarios, they now want to tell their own jokes, create their own humor, and earn their own laughs. Of course, this is not inherently sinful, but the Bible reveals that not all humor is created equal. How many of us have a story about our teenager (or ourselves) getting in trouble because they were trying to be funny?
This is nothing new and is a normal part of the child’s maturation process and the parenting experience. The Bible reveals that certain types of humor should be pruned out of the lives of Christians and their children. In Ephesians 5, the Apostle Paul describes several behaviors that should “not even be named among you,” which include “coarse jesting” (vv. 3–4). The Greek word translated “coarse” can also be translated as “obscene,” “vulgar,” or “suggestive.” Godly teenagers know that although being rude, cursing, or telling sexual jokes often draws laughter from their peers, they must resist the temptation.
This is not to say that teens are the only culprits; they frequently see this type of humor modeled in the movies adults produce, the jokes professional comedians tell, and sometimes even in vulgarity from political leaders. But the Bible is clear: We should correct our children if they use this type of humor. Moreover, we ourselves, as parents and adults, should repent if we sin by indulging in it.
The Bible reveals several other traps involving humor, such as treating it as a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” Proverbs 26:18–19 says, “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, ‘I was only joking!’” These verses provide strong warnings against practical jokes or other deceptions that are done in the name of comedy, letting us know that when a joke or jest is made at someone else’s expense, it is not godly humor. Unfortunately, this negative, sniping, deceptive, insulting humor is frequently the easiest to learn and the most often modeled by society at large.
Another warning that the Bible gives us is that laughter is not always joyous and medicinal. Sometimes it can be mocking and derisive. Proverbs 29:9 warns that “whether the fool rages or laughs, there is no peace.” While our children might not be the one making the joke, do they laugh along with the fool? If one of their friends insults or “pranks” someone, do our teens encourage the insulting jest, deception, or prank by laughing at the brunt of the joke? If “I was only joking” can be used as an excuse for ungodly humor, how much more can our teens be tempted by the excuse “I was only laughing”? Proverbs 18:21 reminds us that “death and life are in the power of the tongue,” and this certainly applies to humor.
To be sure, friends of all ages like to tease one another. Sometimes, it can be done playfully and tastefully, in such a way that the friendship is not damaged. Nevertheless, we often know the difference between good-natured joking among friends and mean-spirited insults meant to provoke laughter at someone else’s expense. Most teens know this difference, too—especially if they have adults pointing out the differences between good, edifying humor and pranks and insults that only serve to embarrass, hurt, or even provoke someone. Effective comedy does not have to be at anyone’s expense.
Parents Set the Example of Good, Clean Humor
Considering both the benefits and the warnings associated with laughter and humor, parents should endeavor to set the right example. Most parents would love to see their children experience the stress-reducing benefits of laughter while avoiding ungodly humor that the Bible warns against. Parents should aim to set the right example in this. Enough fathers have tried their hand at humor that “dad jokes” have become a common expression for corny humor that makes children groan instead of laugh. Thankfully, many dad jokes are just silly and do not fall into coarse jesting.
Fathers should also be mindful of how they treat their wives. Do husbands make sure that their children know they love and respect their wives first and foremost? If a husband is not careful, the teasing and joking can come across as demeaning or disrespectful of his wife, and that is a dangerous example to set in front of their children. And this applies to wives, too, who should not model humor that is disrespectful of their husband. The display of humor between husband and wife should help children learn what joking is appropriate and what is not. Obviously, fathers and mothers should also mind their examples when they joke with their children as well, and always be kind.
Parents must also correct children whose humor crosses the line. Many may make the mistake of assuming that all laughter is good laughter, and they need instruction to know the difference. We cannot assume that our children instinctively know that difference, even if it seems obvious to us.
Finally, parents must be willing to apologize if they get it wrong. There can be times when words sound a lot funnier in our head—and a lot more insulting when we hear them out loud. There are also times when we believe everyone is laughing together, only to discover that the joke came across as an insult to someone. When that happens, we must own our mistake and apologize. This sends a strong message to our children of how to fix the situation when they make an error in judgment.
Humor can be one of the great joys that we share with family and friends. It has many benefits and frequently draws people together when we use it in a godly manner. Indeed, “a merry heart does good, like medicine” (Proverbs 17:22). But laughter is not guaranteed to always have this effect. Let’s take the challenge of instructing our children in proper humor by setting the right example and heeding the admonitions of the Scriptures.