Finding the difference between being amused by your kids vs. laughing at them

Guest post by Paige
Are you laughing at me?
Taken by daddy

I remember being laughed at as a kid and I hated it. To this day relatives will bring up funny things I did when I was five and giggle hysterically. It seems like they expect me to join in but I rarely do because the truth is that it was embarrassing to be made fun of. It felt almost like ridicule when they thought my genuine attempts at expressing my tiny self were funny.

Although I cannot believe their laughter came from a malicious place, at times the seven-year-old version of me deeply felt it did. I understood their hushed conversations, caught on when they thought their jokes were too mature for me to comprehend and frequently cried when they laughed at me. The problem was that I didn’t see myself as separate from adults because of our age difference and I so badly wanted to be respected and treated as part of their world.

I think a lot of parents have those “I swear I will NEVER do that to my child” rules and this has always been one of those concerns for me. My experience of exclusion and embarrassment has made me want to treat every child I come in contact with as an equal. This isn’t to say they should necessarily be exposed to everything in the world at age four, just that I should take care to ensure they feel respected and included by me. I don’t want to be condescending to anyone regardless of their age and I certainly don’t want to make children experience the embarrassment I did when adults (probably unconsciously) made me feel so far beneath them that I became a joke.

This brings me to a sticky situation with my own daughter. While I understand she may not be as sensitive as I was, I still feel a strong need to encourage her confidence and sense of belonging in my life. However, I now realize this may be harder to enact than I anticipated in my hypothetical pre-mother plans.

The other night we were sitting in my in-laws’ living room watching TV and relaxing after dinner while my nine-month-old daughter inched around the coffee table practicing what has become her very promising almost-walk. A song started playing on TV and she stopped as she always does when she hears music, looked up and began to dance. Her little hips were swinging back and forth so fast that it threatened her balance and she bounced up and down as high as she could without falling.

I was so devastatingly charmed by her adorable little dance I couldn’t help but laugh. We all laughed and the longer she danced, the cuter it became. I was overjoyed at seeing her engage with the music and it took a while for my smile to fade. But as it did I felt guilty. She may not feel embarrassment yet but I realized I was laughing at her and in the future that kind of reaction could potentially cause feelings of exclusion, difference and shame.

It will be a challenge but I am determined to somehow learn how to:

  • Demonstrate my pure joy at seeing her express herself without making her feel like the “other,”
  • Make sure she knows my laughter comes from a place that is full of love and happiness in her, or how to not laugh at all in order to avoid confusion, and
  • Convey that her perceptions are meaningful to me.

I never ever ever want her to be embarrassed because of the way she feels things or expresses them. Her comfort with the adults around her is important and I want her to know she is an equal member of our life rather than a miniature joke that sometimes entertains us.

Comments on Finding the difference between being amused by your kids vs. laughing at them

  1. I have the same concerns!

    What I do is two-part. If I can join in without interrupting him, I do. So dancing or climbing on things, or general silliness, I will jump up so he can laugh WITH me.

    The rest of the time I tell him what it is that’s making me laugh. “I’m laughing because your (singing, dancing) made me so happy!” or, “I love to see you learn things, I’m so proud of you!”

    Because really, the laughter isn’t coming from a place of derision. It’s because we’re enjoying watching them do their version of things, which is something we are able to express to them.

  2. We have been struggling with this… our daughter is only a month old, but even before her father and I started dating, we were both the type to express love and appreciation through jokes. We’ve weighed whether growing up in an environment where EVERYONE gets laughed at and no one takes offense would be good for her. In the end, most of it depends on who she is as a person.

    My brother, who lives with us, had never been around babies before his neice was born. He made a comment as we were eating at a restaurant yesterday, while he was feeding the baby and she was staring at everything around us. He said that babies do so little, yet it is so fascinating to watch them. I told him that there’s a lot to be said about watching someone discover the world for the very first time. That being said, my daughter takes after her 6’5″ naturally blonde father. She is 24 inches and weighs about 8lbs, she has long limbs and large hands and feet topped with long fingers and toes. Her first name can be shortened to Rip and my husband said that many kids used to tease him that his last name was Fartley. She has a short, heavily tattooed mother. Especially in a state where most of the kids she’ll be in school with are hispanic, she will stand out and kids always pick on the kid who stands out. So maybe the jokes and amusement at home won’t be so bad. If she gets mad, then we’ll be able to sit down with her and ask why she got mad. And work on good ways to express her anger. So maybe when she starts school, she’ll be able to look at another kid who’s teasing her for being tall and say “nah, everyone else is just short.”

    • I relate to so much of this! We gave our daughter a name that rhymes with “fart” in Hebrew (we live in Israel), and she’s also big and (right now at 7 1/2 months) very chubby. I’m scared that we’ve set her up for a very traumatic time at school, and I hope I manage to help her be resilient.

  3. It all depends on the child. Our kids will do things that will cause us to laugh at them (like the three year old quoting the “little kid” character from a video game) and they ham it up. They love the attention and feeling like they did something we enjoyed so once they find something that will make us laugh they’ll do it over and over again.

    I think the trick is to make it clear that you’re laughing because “That’s awesome!” not because they “look ridiculous.” Joining in or telling them “You’re so cute/cool/awesome” probably helps.

    Also, completely tangentially, I just noticed that the way the tags are sorted off in the side bar it looks like one of them is “sex sponsored giveaway.” You know, speaking of things that make me giggle.

  4. I really appreciate that you’re trying to encourage your child. I have always felt like this as an only child, except I realize that I may have been invalidated emotionally, which is abusive.

    You can be joyous and laugh at things she does out of endearment, but if you feel guilty, grab those little baby fists and bust a move alongside her ;o)

  5. I’m not sure that treating someone like an adult means you can’t laugh when they do things you find funny. *I* do things that are funny and people laugh at me, I want them to laugh at me, with me, however you want to put it. I think respecting them as an adult manifests by talking to them like a human from the beginning, giving them lots of choices (but not too many because that can be overwhelming to a child!), respecting their feelings, and most of all LISTENING to them. My daughter (4) does things that are funny and we laugh. There have been a couple times when she has gotten upset and felt that she was laughed at. We have developed our communication and mutual respect to a point where we can all talk together about how we are feeling. She is able to express why she felt this kind of laughing was different than say, when she does something cute and as someone said above, does it over and over because she enjoys the laugh. People are so complicated and nuanced that it is hard to say “I will never do this” or “Doing this one thing is bad for my child” with most things. I think that adjusting and going with the flow, communicating, and hugging lots and lots is what helps the world go ’round.

  6. TBH, I’ve never really thought about this. Since I was, say, about 7 or 8, I’ve hated being laughed at, but that was specifically by my peers, and I don’t remember being upset by adults laughing at me, though I’m sure it may have frustrated me a few times.

    I think we laugh at our daughter plenty (she’s 4 next week) and there’s no sign it’s an issue yet. I don’t think there’s any problem laughing at a little child dancing, as in the original post, or doing some other cute thing; I’d personally feel it a bit oversensitive to worry about hurting the feelings of a dancing baby, but to each their own, I suppose. I think babies and small children generally see laughter as a positive thing, as it generally *is*, and I do think most parents are capable of appropriately modulating how they laugh at/with their child as they grow up. It is definitely something for me to think about following this post – I reckon I will instinctually do the right thing, as most parents do, but I will definitely bear in mind as they get older, whether laughter is going to be cool with them or not in a given context.

  7. I have these same concerns, and what I’ve decided is that the biggest issue is baiting. As others have said, sometimes kids love to do something over and over again because it makes you laugh, and they like getting a reaction. I don’t see a problem with that, generally. Where I see a problem is goading your child into doing or saying something silly or stupid so you can laugh at them. When I think back to times that I felt humiliated as a child, it was because an adult told me to repeat something and then laughed at me when I did, or asked me a question they knew I couldn’t answer and then laughed at my “cute” wrong response. THAT is where I see the biggest difference.

  8. I never really thought about it as being a concern and perhaps thats just because I think my son does silly things in order to make me laugh. He did the little bouncing-dancing thing too and I just laughed and told him I loved him.

    Now at 18 months he climbs onto the couch and will stand on the arm rest and belly flop onto the couch. I laugh, because its cute. Or when he tries to do a power slid, I laugh. I never thought I was making fun of him, he is doing things that are amusing to him and myself, so I laugh to acknowledge that he being genuinely entertaining.

    I would understand there being a cause for concern if your child was doing something and ended up hurting themselves, at that point the laugher could be thought of as your laughing at them, instead of with them.

  9. I hated being laughed at as a kid unless it was something I was doing specifically to get a laugh. I wanted to be treated seriously. Fast forward to now, when my 5 year old son tells me, “Quit making fun of me!” when I can’t help but giggle a little when he does something. I tell him the truth over and over– that I am laughing because the things he does make me so happy. On top of that, I have been trying to let him know when something is funny because of a specific reason, like pronouncing something in a funny way. I don’t want him to feel he’s being made fun of, but at the same time, I want him to trust that if he is doing something a little off that is funny I will let him know. I think there is security in that, too. If someone had told me, as a kid, that they were giggling because I used a wrong word in a funny place, then I would have made the decision to change that instead of wondering ‘why is everyone laughing?’

    The laughing thing is related to my other pet peeve, talking about kids like they’re not standing right there. It’s so easy to slip into but I try really hard to let Jonah take the lead in conversations that are about him. Both are areas where we decide whether to treat kids like equal people.

    • I love this. Explicitly helping your child navigate social rules is a great idea and your articulation of how adults talk about kids like they’re not in the room is so true to what I was trying to convey. Thank you!!

    • Love this. Whenever I find myself laughing at my 2 year old, I always try to also say, “I love that you said that” or “what you did was really funny because…” so he recognizes that I’m not mocking him, he just makes me happy. I’ve caught him doing the same thing with kids at school – he’ll giggle at them and then say “that makes me happy!”

    • Yes! I hate when adults talk to other adults as if the children aren’t there. They’re small, but they can still HEAR YOU! It especially drove me crazy when adults would ask me about the kids’ mother’s cancer. They would turned to me and, in hushed tones, ask “How is A doing?” I always replied at a normal (or, ahem, slightly above normal) volume, and answered honestly. ARGH.

    • I hated being laughed at as a kid. I didn’t tell anyone to stop, I was too shy. I think they fed off my emotional shift from happy to quiet and withdrawn. Eventually I started having thoughts of suicide. I pushed away all people out of my life except for the miraculous few that I could get along with, and they didn’t laugh at me. I bottled my feelings in because as a child I thought, I am weak if I complain about this. Everyone else is like me right, and I dont see them complaining. The only way I could stay strong enough to not complain was to have as little human interaction as possible. I was introverted, shy, picked on, all the time. I cried all the time and developed racing thoughts every time an altercation would come up. I always blamed myself. No self confidence. Very poor grades. Very poor understanding of the way the world worked. I was years behind my peers in terms of interpersonal communication skills. I feel like I would have defiantly killed myself if it were not for meeting my wife who is opposite of me and does not have any of these issues. Even though I’m older now and I have a better understanding of what really happened in my childhood, I’m still completely ruined as a person. I regularly have thoughts of suicide and I cry all the time. I have been fired from jobs because of my inability to hold back my emotional pain. It shows through and affects my job performance. I am barely holding down a job now. My issues have gotten worse as I get older. I have taken every medication you can think of. Nothing really works. Personally, I think i’m intrinsically on the more emotional spectrum which doesnt help. But I cant help but think how different it might have been if I was never laughed at, but instead treated as an equal, and people laughed with me, not at me. I feel like I started down the slippery slope early childhood and kept going until I ended up in permanent mental agony and damage; because my only parent figure did not recognize any of the signs to get me help, and as men, we are encouraged to keep our emotions to ourselves, so I could never bring myself to speak about it. I remember growing up, my goal was to present myself as an equal to adults. I tried very hard to be a child who was not a screw up. I was very critical of my mistakes. I treated everything seriously and separated out laughter. When I wanted to be funny and laugh, i’d act that way. I never mixed serious with laughter. And when people laughed at me when I wasn’t trying to be funny, it was very devastating to me sometimes because I put in so much effort to not be treated like that. I never was able to develop coping skills and I never was offered any help or advice. Eventually I got old enough and took myself to a psychiatrist. I should have been seeing a psychiatrist at 8yrs old, but ended up seeing one at around 25 years old. I cry almost every day and I’m always thinking how death might come as a release from the pain. but at the same time I think i’m still far away from doing anything. My view changes as I get older and life changes around me while I’m stuck in a loop of self absorbing darkness that only seems to get darker as time passes. This laughter thing isnt the only cause of my problems, but it’s one that defiantly stands out. I wanted to post this here in case it can help someone. It’s very lonely life and i feel so bad for my wife who is worried I might not come home one day or find me next to an empty bottle of pills

  10. It’s was weird reading this because almost instantly I flashed back to my childhood, not any particular situation, but I vividly remembered that infuriating, frustrating, and oh so disheartening feeling of not being taken seriously. Thank you for this, I too have a nine month old daughter and I’m glad someone reminded me of this before it was too late!

  11. My little boy is just 14 months old and already shows signs of being upset if he doesn’t get the joke. There have been a few occasions where he has done something that had both my husband and I in absolute fits of giggles, then he looks at us in confusion, his bottom lip goes out and before you know it he is crying! Thankfully my fairy God-daughter was the same way so I spotted the signs straight away. She was 3 and vocal, so would often shout ‘Don’t laugh at me!’ when she didn’t understand the joke, or felt like the butt of a joke. If my little one is sensitive to that already, before he can talk, we need to be aware that he is just that kind of personality and make sure that we are very clear about what we are finding funny. At the moment all I can do is talk to him and comfort him if he gets upset, but as he gets older we can explain more in detail the difference between making someone laugh because they are happy and someone laughing at you. I think many of the other posters here are right – baiting your child into doing something silly (especially as a performance for others) and not including them in the joke is harmful, but laughing because they do something funny is just the way of life. Heck, I still laugh until I cry if one of my friends falls over but that doesn’t mean I won’t help them up (and I expect them to treat me the same way)!

  12. I was pretty used to not getting the joke when I was a kid. The most memorable being when my brothers told me to say “duck, but put an f at the front!” So I wandered around saying “faduck!” Perhaps it’s because I’m the youngest by 5 years, but it was never really an issue for me. I knew I wasn’t going to be taken seriously just because I was younger and probably didn’t understand a lot. How I got to that understanding? I don’t know. I certainly was mad enough about not being able to do certain things because of my age, so I don’t know why the jokes didn’t bother me.

  13. As someone who has experienced both, and put some thought into this with my own child – I have this theory:
    When you laugh at something your child does intentionally to be amusing – you are affirming their sense of humour and they adore this.
    Unintentionally it breaks down like this: Am I laughing/being amused at something because of it’s positive or negative qualities? Am I celebrating new knowledge or laughing at an apparent lack of it?
    My 2 yo now counts past 10, but pronounces the next two numbers “Ah-ONE-an” and “TWO-elve” This makes me laugh, because of course one would think you would say one and two in those words since you can clearly see the numbers, but English is ridiculous. I’m laughing because of the idiosyncrasies of English and delight that my child is thinking and really reading the numbers. I’m not laughing because it’s “so cute how kids mispronounce words”.

    • Those clarifications are great and I love the way you analyze the intent. I think kids will pick up on that and it’s a good way to balance laughter and being aware of your behavior with them. Thanks!

  14. I am so torn over this issue! My husband and I are gestating our first (well.. I am, ha) and I was this type of child. I remember hiding under a table at my grandmother’s 60th birthday party because my parents repeated something I said that amused them while I begged and begged them not to … and the entire table laughed. Everyone was angry at me for hiding, but I was so embarrassed I couldn’t look at them. I was an only child and I did not understand why people spoke down to me when I talked the same way they did (or so I thought!) and my husband does not understand at all!!! His family treated him as the seen and not heard child and he accepted that was the way things were and believes this behavior of mine was acting up in a way. I guess it was, but I wasn’t throwing a tantrum, just in desperate need to be alone. If we have a sensitive child I have no clue how we’ll reach a compromise about this.

  15. my husband’s parents used to get him to sing a song when he was tiny, specifically so they could laugh at his inability to pronounce the letter R. He loved singing and was really upset that they laughed at him, didn’t” understand. He now, as an adult, refuses to sing. He talks inhis sleep and if you ask him about it, he gets really upset (in his sleep).
    Admittedly this whole story makes me smashy but I do think it serves to illustrate the genuine impact of laughing At children 🙁

  16. I was that kid too. I was on the sensitive side and still am as an adult. But now I possess a self-awareness that I didn’t as a kid. My family and other adults would sometimes tease me, and even though I know now that they never intended to hurt my feelings, when I was a kid it made me feel put-down and self-concious. I wish now that I had spoken up, but no one ever told me it was okay to do that. So I think that something I want to teach my daughter is that it’s okay for her to speak up and defend herself, even to adults. Developing personal boundaries is a part of growing up and something I think often gets overlooked in kids’ upbringing.

  17. I think it really depends on your kid’s personality. When I was little, my mom laughed when I was trying to dress myself ONCE and I would never come out of my room until I was sure I had my clothes on correctly ever again. My brother didn’t have the same issues with people laughing at him.

    • Yeah, as a super hammy/attention whoring kid, I did not care whether they were laughing with or at me — MORE LAUGHTER POINTED IN MY GENERAL DIRECTION.

  18. I was a super-sensitive child (and adult!) and hated, hated it when I perceived that adults were laughing at me. I just felt humiliated and shamed.

  19. Thank you! It never occured to me that my laughter could be miscontrued to be something mean! My 3 year old is the goofiest person that I have ever met in my life. And when I laugh at him, he hams it up even more. I never even thought that later in life he may think of it as mean! Thank you for the insight!

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