Laughing until it hurts

Among the many responses I received to my Six Essentials for Preaching to Children were several requests for me to discuss specific strategies for dealing with congregational laughter. What do we do when the congregation laughs at the children during the children sermon? When is the laughter harmless, and when does it present a problem? And is it possible to handle this matter in a way that extends grace both to the children and to the grown-ups?

It is so hard not to laugh at what children say, sometimes – even when they are quite serious. I cannot claim, as a parent, to be innocent in this regard. Sometimes I have managed to stifle my laughter in the moment, and other times it has been necessary for my daughter to correct me sternly: “It’s not funny, Mommy!”  But I am fairly accurate when it comes to knowing when she is being intentionally funny (making a joke), and when she is serious about something that strikes me as funny.

So I want to be clear at the outset that the adults who are laughing probably love the children they are laughing at very much.  They just are not giving thought in the moment to what their laughter might mean to the children.  We want to give the grown-ups in the congregation the benefit of the doubt, starting with the assumption that the adults love the children and mean well.  When reminded of the vows they have made at every infant baptism to help to raise the children in the Christian faith, these grown-ups will desire to live into these vows to lead the children through example and through direct interaction.  Therefore, the first thing is to be gentle with the congregation.  Remember that they too are beloved children of God.

Something that is helpful here is to examine what is at the root of much laughter: surprise.  When something happens that we do not expect, or when what we expect does not happen, then we laugh.  Often we laugh hardest when we are lulled by the familiar, until any variation from the expected would cause surprise. Or when two familiar things are brought together in a surprising way.

Because I know my daughter well (and because I am growing into a greater understanding of children at different ages more generally), I can usually tell when my daughter or her close friends are meaning to say something strange / surprising / shocking, and so attempting to make me (or each other) laugh – and when they are saying something that surprises me because my 38 year old brain works so much differently from their 5 year old brains.

What is different catches us off guard.  And when we are caught off guard, one of our reactions is to laugh.

Personal confession:  when in the parish, I caused some confusion to my grown up parishioners with my laughter.  The cultural divide was so great, that often I thought they were telling a joke when they were serious, and so I would laugh.  And other times, I would fail to laugh when they were trying to make a joke, because I didn’t find the same things funny that they did.  Given more time in that setting, I feel I could have overcome that divide – but it took me time to figure out what was going on, and to begin learning who they were enough to start teasing out the difference between what I was taking to be dry wit and what some individuals meant to be literal descriptions of what was going on in their minds.

When it comes to children, I have had the advantage of being a child and being attentive to (and hurt and confused by) the laughter of adults.  I also took a class in developmental psychology in college, have continued to read a great deal about child and adolescent development, and my mother is a developmental psychologist.  And for the past five years, my intellect has been primarily focused on thinking about my daughter and her friends.  So it is not particularly remarkable that I notice when kids are not trying to get a laugh, and when laughing at them is inappropriate.  Not having had any context for understanding rural living, farming, factory work, living in the same county where you grew up and your mom grew up and her mom grew up… well, let’s just say that I am lucky that I had eaten food that my Dad had hunted and my Mom had canned as a kid, or I would have had little to go on for cultural connection.  To twist an expression originally used to talk about the relationship between the U.S. and England, we were divided by a common language.

My point here is that often, adults and children are divided by a common language.  Children are using words differently than we do, and saying things that are not what we would say, because they do not have the experiences that we have.  And to make things even more complicated than when grown ups from different cultures encounter one another, children do not even have the same brains we do – they do not have the same capacities for nuanced thinking, or for understanding metaphor, or for processing that different people have different points of view.  There is a lot of potential for humor here.  Which is why parents spend so much time sharing with one another the funny things their kids have said.  Just so long as these conversations are out of earshot of our kids, and they are accompanied by time spent trying to better understand our children, then no problem.

So the best remedy for inappropriate or hurtful laughter is education – getting to know more about child development*, and about the children in the congregation in particular.  And while it would be great if every lay person in our congregations had the time and inclination to show up to evening and weekend workshops, the reality is that some of this education is going to need to take place in worship.

But this post has gone on long enough!  Specific strategies and examples of how best to educate the congregation will have to wait.  In the meantime, your love and grace for yourself and the people of all ages who make up your congregations will go a long long way!

*There are so many wonderful books out there that it is hard to pick one to recommend.  But one that I adore because of how much unique and important information it contains is What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, by Lise Eliot

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