My 6-year-old son, N, is a master of the one-liner. He keeps my wife and me in stitches with his witty observations. He hasn’t realized that his wit and charm naturally draw people to him. He is convinced that telling jokes is his key to developing friendships. Unfortunately, he is no Chris Rock. Here is an example of one of his better jokes:
Me: Who’s there?
Me: Chicken, who?
N: Chicken, underpants.
I can understand his need to connect to his peers with humor. When I was in grade-school, my friends and I engaged in what is commonly referred to as playing the dozens (others call it ranking, jonin’, snappin’, or cracking jokes). We spent hours telling “Yo Mama” jokes and insulting one another.
Whereas, N, uses humor to win new friends, my friends and I used humor as a coping mechanism to escape the harsh realities of our lives. We also used humor to protect ourselves from bullies and other threats. We may not have always been the strongest or baddest kids in the neighborhood, but we were clever and we used our quick wits to get out of some sticky situations.
More importantly, playing the dozens allowed us to bond with each other. Calling someone stank-breath or funkzilla was a sign of acceptance and camaraderie. I’ll admit that we were sometimes malicious in our attacks and took our insults a bit too far, but we always managed to restore our relationships with apologies and shoulder punches.
Humor is an important part of boys’ lives and it’s crucial that dads nurture their sons’ sense of humor. We have to teach our boys how to be funny without being hurtful, offensive or disruptive. Even though, my friends and I often crossed the line of good taste with our “Yo Mama” jokes and insults, I try to teach N to have a more sophisticated sense of humor.
“Listen, son,” I say. “In order for a joke to be funny, you have to make a clever observation and spin it around in a creative way with word play or some other form of imagery.”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about, Daddy,” he says with a face full of confusion.
“Oh, forget it,” I say in frustration. “Underpants!” N rolls on the floor laughing. And so do I.