The Power of Laughter

My child is sulking. He looks unattractive and is evoking the unattractive in me. I'm inclined to criticize, disparage, complain. Naturally, his response is to get sulkier--and we're off on another downward spiral that's of no use to anyone.

Yet I've discovered (then keep forgetting) this amazingly potent tool that can totally transform the situation. I've discovered laughter. If my child is not sunk deep in depression, I can usually find a way to get him laughing. I can do something uncharacteristic and silly myself. I can invite him to be silly with me. I can introduce an unexpected and absurd element into the situation that breaks up the negative dynamic for both of us.

We have many powerful tools available to us as parents. We use them as best as we know how to make our family environments manageable. We have experience and love and logic at our command. We have our size. We have our voice. We have the parental authority that has accumulated the weight of centuries of tradition. Some of these tools work pretty well. Some, however, are pretty crude and unwieldy to use on such a fine and delicate job as nurturing other human beings. Most of us would probably be glad to cast the cruder ones aside if we could find an alternative. I wonder how often laughter could be that alternative.

Medical journals are starting to document the healing powers of laughter. I think we all know this on some level--we just feel so much better after we've laughed and laughed. What if we applied this knowledge strategically to our parenting? Although it's a stretch, I can imagine inviting our children to laugh, and laughing ourselves, about irritations, about mistakes, about misunderstandings.

Can we laugh about more serious things, like discipline? I think of the parent who recounted, with some horror, the story of her two-year-old going up to a stranger in the airport and stomping on his foot. Now, clearly, something was going on for that child. And just as clearly, the chances of getting straight information from a source that age on what are pretty slim.

But children figure things out through play. And laughter heals. What if the mother, after apologizing and saying that we don't stomp on strangers' feet, started a foot-stomping game with the child? What if she kept trying to stomp on her daughter's foot, but always missed? What if she invited her daughter to try the same, and protested every attempt with mock outrage? I can't be sure, but my guess is that the child would laugh and laugh and laugh. Furthermore, I would guess that in some mysterious way that we may never understand, the feelings that caused the initial stomp would start dissolving in the process--much more thoroughly and effectively than any well-intentioned questioning for motivation or admonition to change behavior would ever do.

Of course, there's laughter that's of no use to anybody--derisive, teasing laughter, self-put-down laughter, the helpless laugher of being tickled unmercifully. But it has many other good uses. Laughing parents help children see that adults can have fun too. (After all, this is the future that they all have to look forward to.) And laughter can help humanize the powers that be--in this case, us--in the family.

I keep coming back to my sulky child. The sulkiness is like a thin brittle casing. Yes, it totally envelops him. Yes, it totally transforms his appearance. But if you can give it just one sharp little blow, it shatters and breaks away, revealing a living, breathing lovable person underneath. (The image of people at the start of a party keeps coming to mind. I see them stiff, awkward, mutually unattractive, encased in embarrassment. Then somebody does the thing that gets people laughing--the ice-breaker. The brittle casings start to crack and fall away, and relaxed, vibrant, attractive people start to show.) As I find a way that we can laugh together, my son remembers who he really is, I get to see him that way, and we get each other back.