We’re trying to get out of an overcrowded Harvard Square on a morning when street and building construction is blocking half the lanes, and every traffic light is conspiring against us. Earlier, it took us forever to get all four kids packed up and out of the hotel room, and now we’re running late. My husband Rob—always the family’s designated driver—is tense, frustrated by the slow pace and the mass of cars between us and where we want to go.
Finally, finally, we break out of the worst of the snarl and onto a road where our rental car can actually pick up some speed. Rob breathes a sigh of relief.
And then it comes: “Uh, Dad?” our second oldest says. “I’m really sorry but I just realized I left my backpack at the hotel.”
Rob’s jaw clenches; his eyes blink rapidly. But all he says is, “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, sorry. It has all my school stuff in it—we have to go back.”
My husband sighs. “I’ll turn around,” he says wearily. But just as he starts to pull over—
“April Fools’!” Johnny cries, and we all echo him, exploding with previously stifled giggles. Rob laughs along with us (admittedly more out of relief than amusement) and we continue on our way, much more merrily.
At some point Johnny points out that April Fools’ Day should be called “Torturing Dad Day” in our family, and we all start laughing again. It’s not that we never play jokes on other members of the family—it’s just that the most satisfyingly successful ones occur when we tap into my slightly pessimistic husband’s anxieties. Like the time I came running in to say our daughter was running a fever and vomiting (she wasn’t); or the time Johnny called home from college to say he’d changed his major to the one his father had earlier begged him not to (he hadn’t); or the time—
Well, you get the idea. It amuses us far more than it should to put Rob in pain for a moment or two before revealing it’s all a joke. Fortunately, the man seems to appreciate how successfully we nail him every year—he is, after all, a professional comedy writer.
Since April Fools’ Day almost always falls during the kids’ spring break, we’re usually all together when the big joke is played, and it’s kind of lovely. Humor is like glue: it holds a family together. Nothing is more bonding than laughing together or delightedly taking turns riffing on an absurd scenario.
Humor is also like glue, though, in that it can be toxic. There are right times and right places and right ways to use humor—but there are many more wrong ones, and parents need to know the difference.
Teasing is warm and fun when it’s welcome and gentle and the teasing goes back and forth. But it’s cruel when it tips over into ridicule, or when one person is always the butt of the joke, or when a genuine weakness or insecurity is mocked. Teasing someone for always getting A’s is fine; mocking someone who’s struggling in a class isn’t.
And using humor to air grievances or to attack someone is a nasty sport. I have relatives who’ll say absolutely horrible things to one another in a joking tone and then—adding insult to injury—accuse the victim of having “no sense of humor” if he justifiably feels hurt. Cruelty in a joking tone is still cruelty.
And while sarcasm can be good clean fun between two people old enough and aware enough to volley mischievously with each other, I hate when people use it on or around little kids, who are usually bewildered by comments that make everyone else laugh for a reason they can’t understand. There’s something mean to me about misleading a child by using a tone that doesn’t match your words.
Humor should be used to unify people, not exclude or hurt them.
How do our April Fools’ Day jokes fit into that? Well, the kids and I certainly feel unified when we giggle and plot the day before to figure out how to affectionately “get” their dad. Plus Rob gets to enjoy the catharsis of relief when the sick child springs up perfectly healthy, the backpack appears in the car, the college major stays on course, and everyone is shouting a fond “April Fools’!” in his ear. I’m pretty sure he’s good with it.