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If, when your childhood pet passed away, your father remarked, “Well, I’ll be dog-gone,” you might be the victim of a dad joke. Fortunately, dad jokes might actually be a good thing.

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[INTRO ♪].

Here’s a fun fact for you. I always used to get small shocks whenever I touched metal objects, but it’s recently stopped.

Obviously, I’m ex-static. No? You're not feeling that one?

Did you hear the one about the restaurant on the moon? Great food, no atmosphere. Yeah, dad jokes!

Whether it’s the classic “Hi Hungry, I’m Dad!” or a “tooth hurt-y” dentist appointment, there’s something uniquely groan-worthy about the jokes we associate with dads. Now, it might be tempting to write them off entirely, or, like, campaign for their eradication from the face of the planet— don’t do that to me! Whether you love them or hate them, psychology actually has a pretty good explanation why so-called “dad jokes” exist.

It turns out that they—and other kinds of humor— are probably pretty important for developing minds. Now, there’s no technical definition for a dad joke. But people tend to think of them as puns that just … aren’t very funny.

They don’t even have to be told by dads; that’s just the stereotype. But here’s the thing: people don’t tell them for no reason. At some point in a kid’s development, they are funny.

Kids have to develop a sense of humor like any other cognitive trait. According to psychological theory, there are four stages of humor development which are based on age-related cognitive development. Before they get to puns, kids enjoy and learn from silly songs and rhymes and more formulaic jokes like knock-knock jokes.

It’s not until the fourth stage, when kids are 7 to 11 years old, that they really develop a good enough understanding of the ambiguous and double meanings of words to enjoy things like puns, riddles, and satire. Then shortly after, their appreciation for the art of terrible wordplay peaks. Psychologists think that’s because our appreciation of jokes is relative to how much the concepts they rely on differ from what we understand and expect.

A 1976 study looked at this idea, and found an inverted U-curve for what kids found funny. The amount of pleasure they got out of a joke was related to how recently they had mastered the underlying concept. Before they understood a concept— like, say, the double meanings of words— a joke that relied on it wasn’t funny.

Jokes were funniest right after they mastered the central idea. And then after a few years, funniness declined. They basically got over the jokes.

So it makes sense late elementary to middle school aged kids are the ones most amused by parental punnery. By the time they’re 12 or so, though, the fact that words can have two meanings is old news, so those jokes just don’t seem as funny. Enter the groans and rolled eyes of teenagedom.

That Goldilocks age for pun appreciation might actually be where we got the idea that bad puns are “dad” jokes in the first place. While a person of any gender, age, and parental status can make a bad pun, parents with kids of a particular age have the best audience for them. And it’s not just about appreciation— joke telling, like other forms of parental play, helps nurture a child’s development.

When psychologists talk about play, they define it as any self-generated activity that's fun and not literal, and it’s generally considered to be a crucial part of social and intellectual development. There are a lot of theories around how play contributes to development, but broadly speaking, it’s believed to be a way to experiment and explore. Kids can learn how to make concrete things into abstract ideas, to role play and solve problems, and how to get along with others.

Play essentially acts as first-hand experience, which kids can learn from, and then apply what they’ve learned to new scenarios. And puns and other jokes come into all of this because they’re a form of verbal play: play that’s centered around speech and language. The developmental importance of play might help explain why having a good sense of humor has been linked with social and academic success.

Children with a strong sense of humor tend to have more friends, and studies have shown that peers and teachers alike rate them as more attentive, responsive, popular, and outgoing. So knowing how to kid around is surprisingly important— and learning that starts at home. Even as infants, laughter plays an important role in attachment and helping babies bond with their caregivers.

As kids grow older, their play becomes more sophisticated when their parents are involved in it. The presence of a more knowledgeable play partner can change the way they play, and when parents provide guidance— what psychologists call scaffolding— kids can actually learn more than they would have alone. There's evidence that verbal play can improve a child’s language skills and their metalinguistic awareness, which is their understanding of the rules of language.

And even in adults, the use of puns and other kinds of word play helps enhance learning and memory, like when you’re trying to learn a new language. While they might make you groan, it’s actually very possible that dad jokes play a role in helping kids develop their sense of humor and their language skills. So cut the dads and all the other terrible punners in your life a little bit of slack!

They’re doing important work… and it’s not their fault that you don’t find that joke about two guys walking into a bar and the third one ducking all that funny anymore. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! If you want to learn more about the science of humor, you might want to check out our episode on what is it exactly that makes something funny. [OUTRO ♪].