CYC-Online 116 OCTOBER 2008
ListenListen to this


Humor, relationships and caring

John Digney

“Our connections with clients through humor, love, and pain contribute enormously to our growth as individuals, add complexity to our lives, and increase our capacity for empathy and understanding”.

- Harvey (2003).

What is caring?
Austin and Halpin (1989) remind us that the fundamental basis of Child and Youth Care work requires a “caring relationship” and that this relationship must exist, “between care-giver and child” the assumption is that in the working out of this relationship, a healing, developmental process emerges” (p. 1). Kruger (2000) reinforces this point, “Child and youth care is about caring and acting “about being there, thinking on your feet, interacting, and growing with children.” (Kruger, 2000)

As Child and Youth Care workers, not only do we need to be “caring” people, we also need to be able to express this to the young people with whom we are in relationship, for how else can they (the kids) know that we may be that one person, whom Uri Bronfenbrenner (1977) referred to when he said that “every kid needs at least one adult who is crazy about him or her”. We need always be aware that, “children are not objects, they are subject beings and caring is always an action carried out by one subject being in regard to another subject being” (Austin and Halpin, 1989, p. 2)

Different organizational cultures exist in different programs, with a shared concern in many, that of becoming too involved in the relationship with kids for fear of being viewed as unprofessional. “Many staff in present organisational climates are wary of engaging in shared activities or in developing strong personal relationships – yet in failing to do so they cannot fulfill some of the essential functions of the job”. (Kendrick and Smith, 2002). In addition, the nature expression of caring (being tactile) can be considered “taboo”. Nelson-Jones (2005) states, “touch can be a wonderful way to express caring. We can express caring by a hug, a half-embrace, an arm over the shoulder, a touch on the arm. However with all touch messages clients are in the close intimate zone.” (p. 356). So the dilemma can exist, how can we show these kids that we really do care about them?

How can we demonstrate we care?
Showing caring may be conveyed in many ways, including through the use of humour. Elsewhere (Digney, 2005) I stated, “... it [humour] makes it possible to let young people see that you care. Sharing a laugh, for example can be a non-threatening demonstration of empathy and caring ... It is often easier for a young person to accept that someone cares about them if it is not explicitly stated and presented in a humorous manner”. (p. 12).

Below is a list of 30 ways to show kids that you care. These 30 ways were taken from a list of 150 and were taken from this list by myself for inclusion in this paper, as they can all be applied in some way to the therapeutic use of humour.

Table 1: 30 ways of expressing caring with kids

1 2 3
Be silly together. Daydream with them. Notice them.
Laugh at their jokes. Hang out together. Look in their eyes when you talk to them.
Giggle together. Make time. Be sincere.
Smile a lot. Unwind together. Talk directly together.
Be relaxed. Be yourself. Tell them how much you like being with them.
Enjoy your time together. Accept them as they are. Include them in conversations.
Do what they like to do. Trust them. Create a safe, open environment.
Be spontaneous. Play with them. Help them learn something new.
Have fun together. Let them act their age. Talk openly with them.
Be happy. Surprise them. Inspire their creativity.

The first column I believe speaks to the notion of humour directly in itself and requires little or no commentary as humour either creates or results in these actions. “Being silly together” requires humour, “laughing at their jokes” is humour in action, as is “giggling together” and “smiling”. “Relaxation” can both come from, and be a catalyst for, humour, as with “enjoying time together”. “Doing what kids like to do”, can quite frequently involve some humorous component and “being spontaneous”, “having fun” and being “happy” are clearly compatible with a humorous element.

What about the other 20?
Some of the actions listed in columns 2 and 3 can come about, or are augmented through, the use of humour. If we consider the concepts listed in column 2 in the first instance we come to realize that “daydreaming with”, “hanging out with” “making time for” and “unwinding together” all can often interact with the notion of humour. How often do we find ourselves just being with the kids, “chilling out” and passing the time in moments of calm and end up having a laugh or a joke with them. In Irish culture we talk about having “the craic” with the kids and this comes from sharing the experience of just being there with them in humour. We in Ireland often consider this “reverting to humour” to be a Celtic phenomenon, but research tells us otherwise, it is universal and is unanimously an expression of value and caring. Middleton and Moland (1959) speaking to the idea of “social aspects of humour”, discuss how humour is utilized within groups as a way of bonding and developing solidarity (this is a cross-cultural experience that show a sense of loyalty and caring).

People (kids in particular) know when we are interested in them and that this interest can indicate we care about them. It is most potent when they see that we are comfortable with them, when we allow ourselves to “be ourselves” and when we are seen to “accept them for who they are”. What better way to be ourselves and show we have our guards down, than to engage in a humorous activity with them, telling a funny story or doing a silly thing for no other reasons than having a laugh and enhancing the relationship between ourselves and other. Indeed, it is through such acceptance of self and other that “trust” can emerge. If a kid can see we trust them enough to be silly with them or include them in our fun, they are much more likely to begin to trust us. We can show we care by “playing with”, “allowing them be their age” and “surprising” kids. Again, the notion of using humour to facilitate these actions is readily applicable, frequently done and is generally useful.

The actions in column 3 may not be as readily identifiable as being compatible with the utilization of humour as a way of showing caring and will require some additional consideration and explanation.

We can begin by considering the needs of “noticing them” and involving them in conversations”. Henry Maier (1987) tells us about rhythmicity being a “salient underlying force: the synchronization of child and caring adult”. When a staff notices a young person (particularly if they are in distress or trying to impress) this noticing is “felt” by the kid, “I must be important if they take the time to notice me and include me”, kids will think.

Elsewhere (Digney, 2007), I wrote about an occasion where a colleague noticed when a young person may have thought we were laughing at her and this colleague acted to “include” the young person in our conversation to show this wasn’t the case. By including this young person in reliving our humorous story, she had a feeling of “being noticed”, important and cared about. “Being sincere” is one of the fundamentals of the care function. And young people can see our sincerity when we, “look in their eyes when talking to them”. “In relationship with other, the general rule of thumb is to be open and honest. Being truthful is the foundation to developing trust” (Digney, 2008). Being with kids, “as they live their lives”, (Garfat, 1998), provides numerous opportunities for proving “sincerity”. As humour can be an equalizer, it can help provide opportunities for legitimate and non-threatening, “looking into their eyes”. Making this eye contact may be critical to allow the kid see that we want to make this level of contact, see into our hearts and witness our caring for them.

“Telling kids how we like being with them”, is made really easy when we are able to have a relationship with humour. Having a joke, sharing a laugh, swapping funny stories can “create a safe/ open environment”, in which we can tell a young person how much we enjoy this time with them. Saying to a young person, “I really look forward to these times where we can have a bit of craic”, affirms our relationship as a caring relationship.

We are told (table above) that we need to, “talk directly together” and “talk openly” with kids if we wish for them to know that we care. This is very true, but can be very difficult to do with kids who have suffered rejection, abuse and ridicule. Creating the humorous environment allows us opportunity to communicate directly with them and allow us introduce subjects needed to be discussed with them. As mentioned previously, (Digney, 2008), “quite often we rely on stealth to “send a message” “using the “backdoor”. This can be the acknowledgement of a truth, making a point, providing feedback, initiating a discussion, raising a concern, etc” When this type of light hearted discourse occurs and the mood is right, we can raise points or concerns in an unthreatening manner, allowing them to be better received and internalized”. This approach shows concern for feeling and concern for feeling is an expression of caring about someone.

The final two actions from our list of 30 ways to show we care are; “helping kids learn something new” and “inspiring their creativity”, two actions that are very closely linked. I believe that helping kids discover (or re-find) their sense of humour and ability to laugh again is one of the greatest gifts we can offer. Helping kids learn to appreciate the lighter side of life, helping them take advantage of the curative powers of laughter and humour, cannot be over-emphasized. When we help them to open their minds and hearts to humour, we open so many more doors for them and when they see this they know we care, that we really care. When these doors are open, their capacity for “creativity” is very much enhanced. Their confidence increases, their experience of people and the world shifts (for the better) and their brains function on many more levels. As the defenses decrease, their amygdalas go off guard, and the prefrontal cortex is allowed to reengage, allowing for more logical and creative thinking (see e.g. Brendtro and Du Toit, 2005). When kids see how we help, they can but realize that “this person is helping me make my life better, they really care about me”.

Some exceptions
Of course, it’s not always the case that humour can be or should be used to show we care. Sarcasm is a form of humour and true sarcasm must never be used when working with kids. However, some cultural connotations of the term “sarcastic” can be seen to apply but can be very misleading. I have fond memories of a young person with whom I worked for many years. In as much as I sometimes find it difficult to express my caring, she found it difficult to accept that anyone could care about her. The way we communicated mutual caring was through what may colloquially be termed sarcasm (though not some in terms of the definition provided). When we met during the day the usual greeting would be to come up with a new and humorous insult for each other “which would always come with a nod, a smile or a wink. This can be very dangerous and only works as an expression of caring where there is a solid relationship with a young person. As a rule of thumb, this type of humour must be avoided, as it can be misinterpreted or used as an excuse to create or inflame an incident.

We must also be cautions of what is termed “social laughter”. McGhee (1979) informs us that social laughter is often a “false” type of laughter that has amongst others the functions of (i) hiding nervousness and (ii) filling gaps in conversation, as well as making one feel more at ease. We need to be aware of these “empty” or “misleading” purposes and remember that anything false or misleading shall be picked up almost immediately by the kids and send their defenses into overdrive.

We need also be clear that we are not using humour and laughter to achieve social approval from the kids. McGhee (1979) reports that, “the greatest motivation behind social laughter may be a desire for social acceptance”. (p.173). Where this may often be acceptable and appropriate, it may also be misleading, whereby we believe we are expressing caring, but are being viewed as someone trying “too hard” to connect with a kid.

So, tell the kids we care, and show the kids we care. Live the caring with them and do it with a smile.


Austin, D. and Halpin, W. (1989). The Caring Response. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 4, 1. pp. 2-5.

Brendtro, L. and Du Toit, L. (2005) Response Ability Pathways “Restoring Bonds of Respect. Cape Town. Pretext.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). The fracturing of the American family. Washington University Daily, p. 5.

Digney, J. (2005). Towards a comprehension of the roles of humour in Child and Youth Care. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 18, 4. pp. 9-18.

Digney, J. (2007).

Digney, J. (2008).

Garfat, T. (1998). The effective Child and Youth Care intervention: A phenomenological inquiry. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 12, 1 and 2. pp. 5-178.

Harvey, M.A. (2003).

Kendrick, A. and Smith, M. (2002). Close enough? Professional Closeness and safe caring. Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, 1. August/September. pp 50-51.

Krueger, M. (2000).

Harvey, M.A. (2003).

Maier, H. (1987) Developmental Group Care of Children and Youth: Concepts and Practice. New York. Haworth Press.

McGhee, P.E. (1979). Humor: Its Origin and Development. Freeman and Company. San Francisco.

Middleton, R. and Moland, J. (1959). Humour in Negro and White Subcultures: A study of Jokes among University Students. American Sociological review, 24. pp. 61-69.

Nelson-Jones, R. (2005). Practical Counselling and Helping Skills: Text and Activities for the Life-skills Counselling Model. London. Sage Publications.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa | P.O. Box 21464, MacDonald Drive, St. John's, NL A1A 5G6, Canada

Board of Governors | Constitution | Funding | Site Content and Usage | Advertising | Privacy Policy | Contact us

iOS App Android App