Mama Says
by Laura Fratus

(Plain Press, June 2005) When he discovered the “Jokelopedia” in his first grade library, it was to my son, Ned, what the discovery of the Rosetta Stone must have been to linguists.  He studied this book - which is subtitled quite accurately “the Biggest, Best, Silliest, Dumbest Joke Book Ever” - as if by understanding its contents he might unlock the key to the most ancient secrets of humor.

For almost a year afterwards, he would come home from school every day packing a new arsenal of jokes and a trigger finger just itching to fire them all at his family. In the beginning, he found an enthusiastic audience. Even the moldiest old chestnuts can be real knee-slappers when delivered by such a charming comic.  

But as time wore on, and each after-school snack time continued to feature a live performance by our own small Rodney Dangerfield, our response dwindled to a tired chuckle and a pat on the head. And then, finally, I imposed the “3-Joke Limit.”  Henceforth, I decreed, no parent would ever be required to laugh appreciatively and with gusto at more than three knock-knocks, silly riddles, puns or guy-walked-into-a-bar stories told in succession, unless said jokes were genuine, certifiable gut-busters.

The 3-Joke Limit was then entered into the family canon, and remains in effect to this day. When we invoke this rule, there may be some good-natured debate about, say, whether the famous “Orange You Glad I Didn’t Say Banana” knock-knock counts as one joke or several. And then, typically, there is graceful compliance. The performance stops and we return to a conversation where anyone can speak.

Imposing the 3-Joke Limit at first felt sort of mean. After all, here I had been blessed with a talkative little son for whom nothing gave him more pleasure than to voice to his mother the first thing that came into his head, and every other little thing that followed after that. It seemed cruel and ungrateful of me to suggest that there might be a time when I grew weary of the music of his sweet voice.

For us, however, the 3-Joke Limit was our way of conveying in a light-hearted way a point that had the potential for creating hurt feelings. We needed Ned to understand a whole array of realities about growing up: that not everything he says or does is amusing to everyone all the time, that family members need to be prepared to yield the floor to each other, that all kinds of fun have their limits.

This, to me, is among the most challenging of all parenting tasks: to educate children about the subtle niceties of adult interactions in a mutually respectful society. Learning how to read body language, pick up unspoken clues, and observe the complex protocol of everyday life takes a lot of practice. Indeed, these are skills which could use some polishing even by the adults in our household.

But it is child-rearing work that is well worth doing. If we can teach our kids in a gentle but honest way about the give-and-take of human interactions, they stand to give and receive more real joy in their future relationships than they could derive from all the hilarious yuck-yucks the “Jokelopedia” has to offer.


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