--2 The developmental journey of jokes
Oct. 24, 2016
Hank Bone

Mother Tongue: Knocking Ourselves Out

The developmental journey of jokes

September 26, 2014, 3:00 pm
By Lauren Whitehurst

“I spy with my little eye…” is a good road trip time-kill with little kids, but it doesn’t fill 10 hours. You run out of brown and green things to spy and/or your first-grader secretly spies “the universe,” which isn’t really fair. In most car games, I’ve learned, parent scores suffer from the lack of third-party verification.

So, several hours into a summer roadtrip, my family and I started up knock-knock jokes, the punny pas de deux with five familiar call-and-response steps:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?


Dwayne who?

Dwayne the bathtub! I’m dwowning!

Our family is just now getting into this fun. Sort of. Some versions are easier to work with. For example:

Knock knock.

Who’s There?


Boo who?

Don’t cry; it’s only me!

“Boo who” is a simple play on “boo hoo.” Along similar lines, “who who” is an owl, “yah who” is a party, and cows don’t “who,” they “moo.”

Word-play jokes are fun when kids are figuring out more about how language works, that words sometimes appear within other words and that words can have more than one meaning.

A year or so ago, Theo asked out of nowhere, “Guess where cows come from!”


“Cow-lifornia!” he said, completely delighted with himself.

Some psychologists use joke telling to gauge children’s linguistic and intellectual skills; and knock-knocks can be especially useful because they require enough know-how to play with sounds and definitions, homophones and homonyms, and funny accents.

Since Theo is now in first grade, where reading is a huge focus and language concepts are becoming more complex, his humor dial just went up. I expect he’ll experiment with more and more wordplay. This clever humor, so obviously tied to his learning new ways to interact with ideas and people, is incredibly fun to observe and participate in. Sharing humor is an important social bond, and the evolution of funniness in my kids creates a new closeness among their friends and in our family.

Sometimes the family bond is all in, when we share in getting a joke. Other times, I’m on the outside, especially when Theo and Sylvia send up peals of laughter at jokes that make no sense at all, either because of what they leave out or because I just don’t get it—or because they didn’t get it either but think it’s funny anyway.

There are the knock-knocks that take too long to remember: Knock knock./Who’s There?/Banana./Banana Who?/ Knock knock./Who’s There?/Banana./Banana Who?/Knock knock./Who’s There?/Banana./Banana Who?/Knock knock./Who’s There?/Banana./Banana Who?/Knock knock./Who’s There?/Orange./Orange Who?/Orange you glad I didn’t say “banana”!? The kids just shorten these, bypassing the point to get to the punchline:

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Aren’t you glad I didn’t say banana!?”

“But, wait. Um,” I say. “You have to go through all the bananas for it to make sense.”

Theo and Sylvia, however, are all uproarious in the back seat and don’t hear me, especially after Sylvia says, apropos of nothing, “Aren’t you glad I didn’t count to 10!” High levels of hilarity follow from Sylvia’s:

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”


Bathroom humor is endlessly hilarious to 4-year-olds—and also 7-year-olds. And also, everyone else: The hungover porter in Macbeth has a sort of knock-knock routine going in his play at guarding Hell Gate. From there, his riddles progress to the effect of too much drink on urine and sex. See? There’s no telling where elementary humor can lead!

Or maybe there is. Humor researchers—there are humor researchers!—have found childhood humor to be an indicator of social and emotional health and cognitive development. Psychologist and San Diego State University professor emeritus Louis Franzini reports that ''humor in children has been correlated with higher intelligence, creativity, sociability, empathy, self-esteem, and problem solving." 

On the flip side, studies have shown that lacking a sense of humor may indicate certain mental disorders in which people have difficulty making associations among disparate things or ideas, especially in social contexts. In the parenting world, I think lacking a sense of humor may actually lead to mental disorders: Being able to laugh at myself and my kids and whatever catastrophe we’ve somehow created has often felt like my only link to sanity.

Humor alleviates stress, assuages insult and diffuses arguments. There’s good reason that heaps of marriage and parenting advice emphasize maintaining a sense of humor—a reason besides just acknowledging that maintaining said sense can be really, really hard to do.

Laughing activates our muscles, increases our heart rates and sends more blood to our brains: Extended belly laughing is akin to exercise. Apparently, 4-year-olds laugh roughly every four minutes. So, if the rest of my family laughed every time Sylvia laughed, our long, sedentary summer car trip was practically aerobic!

It’s funny to think how breathlessly I waited for Theo’s and Sylvia’s first non-gas-induced smiles; how hard I worked to elicit their first responsive giggles; how utterly and absurdly silly I’ve been—and am—just to get a laugh out of one or the other. Now, in a sweet pivot, they’re telling me jokes and making me laugh—sometimes at them and sometimes at myself.

“So, Theo,” I explained to the backseat. “Dwayne is someone’s name. It also sounds like someone who can’t pronounce ‘R’ would say ‘drain.’”

“I know,” Theo said. “Knock knock”

“Who’s there?”

“I’m dwowning!”

“Ok,” said my husband, Adam, “but you have to say the ‘Dwayne’/‘Dwayne who?’/‘Dwayne the bathtub’ part first, or it doesn’t make sense.” He turned around to look at Theo. “Saying ‘dwowning’ without the ‘r’ sound is only funny if you set it up with the name ‘Dwayne’ sounding the same as the word ‘drain’ without the ‘r’ sound. Right?”

A lot is lost in trying to explain jokes. There is no sense in it; and, unlike kids telling each other jokes that don’t make sense, there’s no humor in it either. I know this. Adam knows this. And yet we still felt irrepressibly compelled to explain the funniness of pairing a name and a speech impediment.

“Knock, knock,” said Theo, taking another go.

 “Who’s there?”

“Dwayne the bathtub! I’m dwowning!”

Theo laughed at the sound of “dwowning” and his mad joke-telling skills. Sylvia laughed at Theo and their exclusive, kids-only, siblings-only comedy club. Adam and I actually, separately, started to explain—again—the necessity of including, “‘Dwayne.’/‘Dwayne who?’” But, thank God, we laughed at our own ridiculous selves instead. There we were in the parental front seats, where driving and navigation amplify our worst didactic tendencies. We were sadly unfunny; we were nearly insufferable. Yet, in the exclusive, parents-only, spouses-only comedy club, our unfunniness made us completely laughable.

In the end, we all laughed. It didn’t make our drive any shorter, but it was a great distraction from “Are we there yet?”—and a reminder that we all get there in our own good time, with emphasis on the good time.


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