The Rockwood Files: Laugh a little

By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

I once saw a TV interview with actor Will Smith (who starred in Men in Black, Independence Day, etc.), and he mentioned that he cuts his kids some slack about breaking the rules if they happen to be really funny in the process. As a parent, this didn’t horrify me because I knew he wasn’t saying his kids get away with whatever they want as long as they’re funny about it. He was just making the point that there’s real value and a real advantage to having a good sense of humor, and it’s something parents ought to foster. Having a good sense of humor and knowing how to use it has made Will Smith a wealthy man.

But it’s not important to be funny because it might be lucrative, although that would definitely be a perk. It’s important because, generally speaking, people with a healthy sense of humor lead better lives. They have an easier time in relationships. They cope better with stress. They’re more fun to be around, and they tend to go farther in life than those stick-in-the-mud, humorless people who wouldn’t know a joke if it was tied to an anvil and Bugs Bunny himself dropped it on their head.

Fortunately, most kids are naturally funny, thanks to a vivid imagination and a lack of inhibition. But if we’re not careful, we parents could inadvertently train the funny right out of them as they grow up, and that would be tragic.

With three kids under the age of 8 in the house, I’ve seen a lot of cartoons these past few years. One thing I’ve noticed about them is that they’re not all that funny anymore. Barney, for example, is a lot of things – educational, polite, kind and sometimes a little annoying with his sickly sweet songs – but the guy is not funny. Not by a long shot. Not once has he held a stick of dynamite or fallen off a cliff like Wile E. Coyote did so well during all the Saturday mornings of my youth. I’m not saying things have to blow up or fall down to be funny. I’m saying Barney just doesn’t have the same mastery of comedic timing Daffy Duck had.

As a mom, I want a lot of things for my kids – good character, a solid sense of morality, a generous spirit, an education, a strong faith and a work ethic. But I also really want them to be able to tell a joke and take a joke. To be able to kid around without being cruel. To use their sense of humor to bring others up instead of putting people down. To realize there are times in life when the best thing to do is laugh it off and keep on moving.

So we’ve started a new tradition at our house. I give out points when somebody makes me laugh. But I make them earn it. It has to be an authentic, laugh-out-loud kind of moment. If it is, I give out a certain number of points, depending on how funny it was. The kids keep asking what they’re going to do with all these imaginary points, and I keep saying that they’ll find out soon enough. (The truth is, I have no idea yet how they’re going to use the funny points. But I’ll figure it out as we go along, and somehow the spontaneity seems to fit the contest.)

I don’t care if any of my kids become the next Seinfeld or not. I just hope they learn to appreciate some of the magic that made Lucille Ball a television legend and turned Bill Cosby into a comedy icon. Being funny earned one of my favorite authors, Dave Barry, a Pulitzer Prize for humor writing. I want them to know that being funny is a gift, a talent and a life skill.

Yesterday, 2-year-old Kate proved that life skills can start early. We were in a Mexican restaurant waiting a really long time for the check to come. The boys were restless, and Tom and I were both dreading the grocery shopping trip and the other weekend chores we still had to do. Suddenly, we heard little Katie say “Look at me!” We all looked. She’d taken a leftover flour tortilla and bitten two circular holes in it. She plastered it against her face and peered out of those impromptu eye holes like a blonde-haired burrito bandit. We couldn’t see her smile but we could hear her giggling behind the tortilla, and pretty soon the rest of us were laughing with her.

“Ten points for the tortilla mask!” I said. “Now that is funny.”

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