Last week I spent some time with my sister. She makes me laugh so hard she can bring me to tears. Even now, when I think about her, I smile wide. We live six hours away from each other, but through phone calls, Facebook, and texts, we manage to keep our relationship strong.
We were blessed to grow up with six brothers, as well. If you ask me to name the funniest people I know in real life, my siblings would be the first seven on my list (well, maybe six – Dave needs to step it up a notch). I look forward to spending time with them because I know we will enjoy each other. We usually end up congregated around a table, laughing about stuff that our spouses don’t always appreciate but our kids enjoy (maybe that is a topic of a future blog post: are humor styles genetically inherited or solely based on shared experiences?). Our laughter is refreshing and I go home feeling renewed.
Humor in young sibling relationships can predict future relational styles in other relationships. Young children, even younger than 24 months, have been shown to initiate humor interactions with parents and siblings, which can predict later humorous interpersonal styles. Research shows that teens that have a humorous interpersonal style with their siblings are reported to engage in humorous interactions with their mothers, teachers, and friends, as well. When used in conflict resolution in family relationships, humor decreases the experience of conflict and lowers negative emotion. Therefore, safe and playful humor between siblings can potentially reduce bickering and even sibling rivalry.
So what does healthy humor between siblings do for their relationship? As young children, humor is mostly exhibited through play. Imaginary play, physical games, sharing toys, even board games, provide opportunities for children to exhibit humor in the relationship. These are opportunities for learning how to use humor to problem solve, negotiate, and even cope with mildly stressful issues that arise during play. These humorous interactions also form positive memories and forge a relationship between the siblings.
As the children grow older, their shared humor provides another facet to the relationship by providing safety between the siblings. Jokes emerge based on shared experiences, teasing is focused outside the relationship (with mom or dad as the target, for example), and common ground is strengthened. When the humor is considered “safe” (not used to inflict harm on the other), trust is established and emotional intimacy can be built between the siblings. We are more inclined to confide in someone whom we trust won’t use our story against us. Safe humor is one way of building that trust. This provides both siblings a safe confidant and ally in the home during a time when parents are posed as an adversary (which is developmentally appropriate and necessary, by the way).
Sibling relationships are so valuable, not just as our companions as children, but for companionship in our old age. Research has shown that, as aging adults, we gravitate back toward our siblings, and we nurture those sibling relationships more intentionally than other friendships. Work relationships fade after retirement, our neighbors move away, our community friendships dissolve or are not in our same age range. Our siblings, however, are ours forever. The humor we establish as children continues to serve us long into our old age.
Speaking as a mother, it is sometimes difficult to encourage humor between your children. Being the target of their humor can be uncomfortable. Raucous laughter can be loud and annoying. Whispers and giggles can be equally so. I have caught myself scolding the kids for laughing too loudly in the car, “Inside voices! Quiet!” As we approach bedtime, when I am tired and more than ready for them to wind down while they are having fun and laughing hard, I am tempted to put a stop to it and put them to bed. The real problem here is not their humor and playfulness, it is my selfish desire to put my needs before theirs. I need quiet. I need them to go to bed.
But, evaluating my priorities on a larger scale, I realize that I want to instill a lifetime of playfulness and humor in them, and the natural places for that to evolve seems to be in the car when they are trapped together in the back seat, or before bed when they are relaxed and recalling their day. Encouraging their laughter by staying out of it is the best gift I can give them and their life-long relationship.