Good parenting is just a joke

27 October 2011

Parents who joke and pretend with their toddlers are giving their children a head start in terms of life skills. Most parents are naturals at playing the fool with their kids, says a new research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).  However parents who feel they may need a little help in doing this can learn to develop these life skills with their tots.

"Parents, carers and early years educators shouldn’t underestimate the importance of interacting with young children through jokes and pretending," researcher Dr Elena Hoicka points out. "Spending time doing this fun stuff with kids helps them learn how to do it themselves and gives them a set of skills which are important in childhood and beyond."

The latest research findings on joking and pretending with children will be highlighted at a half-day event organised as part of the ESRC's Festival of Social Science 2011. One key aim of the event will be to boost parents’ confidence in joking and pretending with their toddlers through a range of hands-on activities.

Dr Hoicka's study has examined how the two very similar concepts of joking and pretending develop in children aged between 15 and 24 months. Explaining the difference between joking and pretending, Dr Hoicka says: "Both involve intentionally doing or saying the wrong thing. However, joking is about doing something wrong just for the sake of it. In contrast, pretending is about doing something wrong which is imagined to be right. For example, parents might use a sponge like a duck while pretending but use a cat as a duck when joking."

The study examined whether parents offer different cues such as tone or pitch of voice in order to help their toddlers understand and differentiate between joking and pretending. Findings reveal that parents rely on a range of language styles, sound and non-verbal cues. For example, when pretending, parents often talk slowly and loudly and repeat their actions. Conversely, parents tend to cue their children to jokes by showing their disbelief through language, and using a more excited tone of voice.

"We found that most parents employ these different cues quite naturally to help their toddlers understand and differentiate these concepts," Dr Hoicka points out. "While not all parents feel confident in their natural abilities, the research does show that making the effort to interact in this way with toddlers is important. Knowing how to joke is great for making friends, dealing with stress, thinking creatively and learning to 'think outside the box'. Pretending helps children learn about the world, interact with others, be creative and solve problems."

Parents can learn more about the different cues used in joking and pretending during an event to be held later this week. "We will be offering a range of activities to help parents experiment with joking and pretending," says Dr Hoicka. "We will also give some short talks on the early development of joking and pretending in toddlers as well as some initial findings from our research project."

For further information contact

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors:

  1. Joking and pretending in toddlers
    Organiser: Dr Elena Hoicka, University of Stirling
    Date: 29 October 2011 09.00-10.30, 10.30-12.00 and 12.00-13.30
    Venue: The University of Stirling Baby and Toddler Laboratory
    Audience: Suitable for parents and children under 5, and early years’ educators
    For more information: Joking and pretending in toddlers
  2. This press release is based on some initial findings from the project 'Parents' linguistic, acoustic, and non-verbal cues for toddler-directed pretense and humour' funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Dr Elena Hoicka of Psychology, the School of Natural Sciences, University of Stirling.
  3. The Festival of Social Science is run by the Economic and Social Research Council which runs from 29 October to 5 November 2011. With events from some of the country's leading social scientists, the Festival celebrates the very best of British social science research and how it influences our social, economic and political lives - both now and in the future. This year’s Festival of Social Science has over 130 creative and exciting events aimed at encouraging businesses, charities, government agencies; and schools or college students to discuss, discover and debate topical social science issues. Press releases detailing some of the varied events are available at the Festival website. You can now follow updates from the Festival on twitter using #esrcfestival
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk