Laughter and Parenting

Yesterday, I read a provocative article by Roger Scruton entitled “Forgiveness and Irony: What makes the West strong.” Agree or disagree, it is worth a read on its own merits. But I was struck by one particular quote that starting me thinking:

“People inoculated by the culture of repudiation, reluctant to acknowledge the search for meaning as a human universal, tend to think that all conflicts are really political, concerning who has power over whom.”

For some time now, Molly and I have operated on the strong intuition that laughter is an essential aspect of parenting. My intuition is driven by two corresponding ideas: 1) laughter is a way to model a vivacious and working humility (something I want to model) and 2) laughter is a way of undercutting anxiety its corresponding lack of emotional control.

I think that Scruton’s quote gets me a bit closer to understanding how this actually works. There are two aspects to his quote that help me. First, Scruton warns against a “culture of repudiation.” Many Christians will find this sort of description easy to grasp. A culture of repudiation refuses on all fronts to acknowledge goodness outside of the received cultural idol (whatever it may be–note, I do not think Christianity ought to engender a culture of repudiation). It’s not a universal repudiation, but a “no goodness, but…” But this leads to a cultural of isolationism, fear, and often great unhappiness for those who lack control.

Second, my citing control (above) feeds naturally into the second way this quote helps me. A culture of repudiation goes hand in hand with struggle for control. Proponents of a received cultural idol often lack confidence that others will see the beauty, glory, or goodness of their particular cultural idol. And if one cannot woo, he must convince. And if convincing does not work, he must resort to stronger measures, especially some form of overt power (e.g. political power or military power).

So how does this fit with parenting? How does laughter (Sruton’s “irony”) fit?

The pathology of a culture of repudiation in parenting tends to strike the single key of obedience. A child’s will must be made subject to the parent’s will at all cost. There is no room for argument. This can often create a climate of anxiety, since what the parent is modeling is an unquenchable demand for total control. Kids learn to replicate what their parents model. Only, in this case, the child is not in control. The desire for control coupled with a lack of control is the recipe for anxiety.

And laughter helps this. Laughter (not scorn) is the evidence that there is something to be affirmed in spite of appearances. As such laughter undercuts the culture of repudiation at its roots. Further, laughter can be an important vehicle for manipulating the panic arising from a loss of control. As such it stabilizes the person emotionally for a reinvigorated and properly oriented pursuit of one’s ends. But more significantly, laughter signals a conscious inability to take oneself too seriously. In fact, laughter is just that, a refusal to take things too seriously.

G.K. Chesterton, a famous advocate of laughter, once said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”


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