The two of them sat the table trading knock-knock jokes while I chopped vegetables, listening to them laugh uproariously at their so-called punch lines. I’ve heard them telling each other these corny jokes for years. Or as the recipient of the dreaded “knock-knock” command, I have always replied, as a dutiful mom, with a cheerful and curious, “who’s there?”
What surprises me most: that so many of these terrible knock-knock jokes are the very same ones that I used to hear and repeat when I was exactly their age:
Why are you crying?
(I’m not saying it’s a good joke. I’m just saying it’s stood the test of time.)
“Hogwarts. Get it?”
Both girls doubled over in laughter.
I try my best to be encouraging to my children, especially when it has to do with cultivating a sense of humor, a necessity for surviving to and through adulthood. But this one crossed the line. The joke was lame. Somebody needed to explain this to them.
“Guys,” I said, in that I’m-about-to-tell-you-something-you-need-to-know voice, “I’ve always chuckled at your knock-knock jokes, because it’s charming, the way you deliver them. But you’re approaching the age right when you might want to refine them just a bit, to make sure they’re funny.” I went on to describe the nature of humor, how it’s based on a play on words with a surprise element, or in the case of a knock-knock joke, a clever dual meaning of a word or phrase with an unexpected outcome.
I looked up from my cutting board to see both of them staring at me. I could see that my suggestion that their humor wasn’t up to par was a serious blow. The corner of Buddy-roo’s mouth started to quiver, just moments ahead of a grand wail and the rush of tears. Short-pants regarded me with disbelief. Another #fail for mom, like the Santa spoiler, I’ve managed to make a mess of things when all I thought was doing was offering a sound piece of counsel.
It brings to mind a story De-facto tells about one of his college friends, a woman who tells it like it is and also happens to be athletically adept. Driving her sons and their friends home from what had been a particularly pathetic soccer game, she overheard them congratulating each other on the fine plays they’d made. She endured their reciprocal adulation until she could take it no longer, at which point she railed into them, with specificity, about all the shortcomings that had resulted in their loss, a rant that started out with, “You guys are not that good.” I could picture her looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing their stunned faces, called out by their mother for their exaggerated pride.
I’m all for encouraging my children and developing their self-esteem. I try to be deliberate with my praise, pointing out the specific things I like about the pictures they draw, and the parts of the stories they tell that tickle or touch me. I try to praise the effort more than the result. I use as much appreciative inquiry as I can, and I try to pose concerns to them in the form of a question that might inspire them to to correct and improve. (Okay, sometimes I just plain yell at them to pick up their dirty clothes or hang up their wet towels, because the third try at “how might you put your clothes away?” approach didn’t achieve the desired results.) All this to say I try to take a positive route with my children, especially about sensitive errors. Example: to Short-pants when she’s practicing her viola, “You got the rhythm perfect that time, great. This time, listen to be sure you’re playing in tune as well.” All delivered with you-can-do-it assurance.
Sometimes, though, you have to just say it like it is. I think we do a disservice to our children if we don’t give them direct feedback, or if we sugar-coat it so much that they don’t learn how to receive criticism that isn’t softened at the edges. I’m not suggesting a humiliating attack – though that might feel satisfying to deliver – but a straightforward appraisal is good practice for the real world. Not everyone gets a medal, and if you don’t get one, you need to be able to hear – and learn from – the reason why.
Short-pants’ expression of shock and surprise morphed into one of feigned consternation, a look she gives me when we’re teasing each other or she’s pretending to be mad at me.
“How about this one?” she taunted, “Knock-knock.”
I felt compelled to oblige. “Who’s there?”
“Leaf me alone if you don’t like my jokes, will ya?”