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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School… January 28, 2012

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Education, Learning, Parenting/Children.
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I grew up in a funny family. 

Now that we have established that, I can elaborate a bit. When I was growing up, I soon learned that, even though my Dad had more formal education than my Mom, it was difficult to beat Mom in a battle of wits. For most people, trying to debate Mom was like bringing a knife to a gun-fight. (She taught more than one Baptist minister to not say “Does anyone have anything else to share?”)

Mom also had a very well-developed sense of humor. Here, I will postulate that these two facts about my Mom are not coincidental, but have a causal relationship.

Kids are Funny

When my sons were very young, not longer after learning to speak, they wanted (like most kids) to tell jokes. Most likely, children watch adults sharing funny stories and want to participate in the process of making other people smile and laugh.

Typically, this begins with puns, and (not surprisingly, with my sons) that’s how things began with both of the boys. (To this day, we enjoy pun-fests that make normal people nauseous.) However, both of my sons quickly graduated from simple wordplay to more complex notions of “funny” pretty quickly.

My older son, when he was roughly 8 or 9, was riding in the car with me on the way to the local mall. As we pulled up, he saw the sign below:

He looked at the sign and said, “The heads and the tails don’t match.”

I had driven by this sign countless times, but had never noticed this. “Wow… you’re right. They don’t match.”

Without any hesitation he said, “That’s a horse of a different color.”

For a moment, I pondered whether or not some demon had possessed the child sitting next to me. How in the world did he find that phrase, and somehow pull it into that context? How did he do this so quickly? How did I not think of it first?

My strongest memory of my younger son’s foray into humor was in the midst of a discussion about braking systems in the car. He was very young (probably 7 or 8), and wanted to understand how the brakes worked. I explained the behavior of the disc rotors, and how the calipers held the brake pads, and squeezed the rotor to slow it down. I even did some demonstrations by sliding some paper between his fingers as he squeezed, to show the action of the calipers.

After the discussion reached a level where he was satisfied that he understood, he asked, “Dad, do the calipers ever go bad?”

“Well,” I replied, “I guess they could. Why?”

He smiled and said, “Wouldn’t that make them ex-calipers?”

Yes, this joke was rooted in a fairly simple pun, but the setup he provided (that something gone bad might yield the prefix “ex”) showed that he was doing more than just noting words that had similar sounds or parallel meanings. He was using a joke to demonstrate understanding. Once more, I was annoyed that I hadn’t thought of the joke first.

“Funny You Should Say That”

Obviously, my wife and I never hesitated to make jokes in front of our sons, and so much of their attempts to be funny was simple mimicry. However, there were many occasions where one of the boys wouldn’t understand a joke, and would want an explanation of what made it funny. We never hesitated to explain those, even though they were sometimes more complex.

Over time, my sons both learned that all humor is rooted in two things: parallelism and surprise. The first component, parallelism, can have many forms, but ultimately says “This thing that you know over here? Well, if you put it over here just right, it fits too.” The second component, surprise, comes from how unrelated the parallel situations are. For example:

“Isn’t it ironic that the stationery store had to relocate?”

The parallel comes from the homophonic relationship “stationary” and “stationery.” (This, by definition, tends to make this a joke that works better when spoken than read.) The surprise of the joke comes from the reality that stores frequently relocate, so temporarily substituting “stationary” creates cognitive dissonance.

Humor as a Gateway to Education

How does all this relate to my assertion at the top that there is some kind of correlation between intelligence and humor? Here’s my take:

When my sons were small, and wanted to create their own jokes, they realized that they would have to look for parallels. As they did, the trial and error of joke telling taught them where the parallels applied, and where they didn’t. As they grew older and started to study the humor of others, they began to find other realms of knowledge that they could reference with humor. For example:

Son: “Hey… do you have any sodium bromide?”

Me: “Why would I have sodium bromide?”

Son: “Wrong answer Dad. You’re supposed to say ‘Na Bro.'”

(For the non-scientist, “NaBr” is the chemical designation for sodium bromide.)

Mind-maps and Parallels

If you’ve ever used mind-maps to take notes or organize your thoughts, you will appreciate the value of being able to spot parallels from different subject areas. When you are faced with an unfamiliar subject, one of the first tasks is to figure out the relationships between the various elements within that realm.

If, as you dig into a subject, you begin to see things that “feel familiar,” you can start to do some preliminary grouping and organizing of your mind map, based on a parallel that you already know. If a given pattern or parallel does not apply, your familiarity with the previous subject will make it quite clear where the disparity is, and will illuminate areas where the pattern works.

Holding Patterns and Pun & Games

As I’ve watched my sons move up through high school and off to college, one of the most notable of their characteristics is their ability to learn new subjects and adapt to new environments. I attribute this to their ability to hold and maintain the patterns of element relationships within a subject area, and transfer those patterns to new subjects they encounter. I’ve long since lost count of the number of times they’ve said something along the lines of, “So when I heard this, I immediately realized it was like ___.”

So the next time you’re making silly puns with your 7 year-old and teaching him or her to follow suit, don’t think of it as immature, childish fun. Instead, think of it as preparing them for a lifetime of learning.

That’s exactly what you’re doing.



1. Allison - January 28, 2012

This fits for my daughter perfectly. She loves making puns and watching our reactions. And I love seeing her make the parallels to which you referred. It shows me her grasp of idioms and all the intricacies of the English language.

The ‘Horse of a Different Color’ pun was brilliant and would have been at any age, but especially that age. And I love how your younger son set up his ‘ex-caliper’ move. Nicely done.

You must have the best family reunions ever.

TimTheFoolMan - January 28, 2012

Keep encouraging that sense of humor! You’re exactly right about the intricacies and nuances of language, and of English in particular.

As for our family reunions, I don’t have anything else to compare them to, but I suspect you’re right. Sometimes they are a soothing balm on cracked and broken skin. Other times, they are a narcotic that I simply can’t get enough of. They are always hilarious. – Tim

2. George Johnstone - January 30, 2012

Or you could have changed the players:

Son: “Hey… do you have any sodium bromide?”

Other Son: ‘Na Bro.’”

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