There is no sweeter sounds to a parent’s ears that the first time they hear their baby laugh. A tiny little coo or a bubbly little giggle, these are great. The first time they give you a solid belly laugh, the stuff dreams are made of. A kid’s genuine laughter is almost magical. Emphasis on genuine, because a child’s feigned cackle is the exact opposite. Well, maybe not the exact opposite. I suppose the exact opposite would be crying, though I honestly don’t know which one is worse.
Of all the difficult things a parent needs to do, making a kid laugh isn’t that hard. Between funny words (never underestimate the inherent comedy in the word “underpants”) and a good old fashioned tickle, a parent doesn’t actually need to be funny to make their kids laugh. Which is good news for parents, because trying too hard to be funny is where the infamous dad joke comes from. Crappy dad jokes aside, real laughs from a kid are plentiful, yet somewhere along the line they break out a guffaw as fake as it is annoying.
I find that most often these faux laughs come out in response to their own behavior. As if pretending to laugh is the signal to everybody else that what they did was actually funny. Like a sitcom laugh track, it is almost convincing enough to pass as genuine if you don’t actually notice it. The best purpose it can serve is white noise, however, unlike canned laughter used to que you in that what Balki just said was meant to be funny, a small child is incapable of being white noise. Their noise must be front and center. It must be noticed and acknowledged. So when my child says something they they really want to drive home as being a funny, they suddenly change from a kid making what they think is a joke to Ray Liotta busting a gut while Joe Pesci amuses him.
What is that? Where do they learn that? Even if I accidentally stoop to the level of a dad joke, I never follow up with an over the top hardy-har-har. I follow it with a moment of shame and deep disapointment in myself. I wonder if that is how they feel after fake laugh? Do they panic and think “Oh no, what have I done? I better cover this up by slapping my sister!” Actually, I bet it isn’t far off. If there is one thing parents learn, is that over the top laughter (be it fake or real) is inevitably followed by tears because nobody can ruin a child’s fun like themself.
Perhaps they learned it from school. One day a kid walks into class and does his best Jerry Lewis impression and the next think you know there are 25 kids all yukking it up at themselves. If that really is the case, then for no other reason teachers really are underpaid for their efforts.
If it isn’t a learned behavior, is it instinct? Some primal reaction based on a deep seeded need to make the people around us happy? Do animals do some version of this? If so, it has to be responsible for half of cases of animals eating their young. When a child cries, our natural instincts kick in and we become caregivers. When a child genuinely laughs, we get a true feeling of purpose and our own joy in what we’re created. When a child spews forth a harsh cackle so over the top that Janice from Friends sound normal, in a very instinctual way, you want to tell them to shut the hell up. Sure, it might make them cry, but I honestly would take real anything over fake laughter.