Why Laughter Really Is The Best medicine
You yell, "Tommy put that down". You holler a thousand times, "Martha don't pull the cat's tail". Like a righteous judge you lay down the law: "I told you to tidy your room." Carry on like this, and before too long you're an exhausted heap- and nobody ever seems to listen.
But you have a secret weapon. You can bring it out, anytime. It might save your sanity. The secret is silliness. Children love silliness. It 's the universal language of every child. Silly walks, silly faces, silly voices. Silly eyes, ears, lips. Simple silliness starts with the body. The body has a million little tricks up its sleeves. The body is a gold mine of silliness.
And it all starts with Peekaboo- the birthplace of all silliness. The simplest of games- hide your eyes- and then slowly reveal them- baby erupts into giggles- then do it again. Peekaboo never gets old- and Peekaboo is a cross cultural phenomena. Charles Darwin 'peekabooed' his son Doddy, as he worked on his theory of evolution. But we don't need scientists to tell us that laughter is healthy- we know.
In the park yesterday I smiled as a mother and son played catch with a ball. The boy was a bundle of boundless energy. 4 years old- his mother threw him the ball- he put his bottom in the air, and caught it with his head between his legs. He giggled, as upside down, he chucked it back. As an adult when was the last time you were upside down? The world looks different upside down- sort-of-silly. People walk funny when you're upside down.
As we get older there's a danger we 'stiffen-up'. But not just in our joints- we get stuck in our ways- our habits and mental attitudes. One of my favourite books reminds me to stay supple- silliness and playfulness help me every day:
Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. You see- whoever is stiff and inflexible is a student of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a student of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 76
When I was a school teacher there was a boy who was a 'real-wild-child'. 12 years old- he was afraid of nothing and no-none- punishments were meaningless. Explanations went in one ear, and flew out the other- and ended up where all the lost pens go- who knows where? And yet he was bright and deeply loyal.
An idea came to me one morning, whilst I was teaching the development of agriculture in ancient Persia. But this was no ordinary idea- it was like Guy Ritchie's latest heist movie. A plan with moving parts, knowing players- and a thrilling final silly scene. Are you ready?
1. Behind the scene
I put a cloth over a few tables, and left a gap. There was room to push something through the gap. But the children in the class only saw a table and a cloth. I arranged for a teacher to interrupt my lesson with a message that I was needed in the office. I spoke to my 'real-wild-child.' He was all ears- in on the plan- straining like a dog at a leash- "play it cool", I told him, "or you'll give the game away".
2. The Spark
The 'real-wild-child' had a reputation for disrupting lessons-we would use that. "What naughty thing could you do- so I could send you out of the lesson?" I asked him. "I could throw rubbers at you. That usually works." He replied after some serious thought.
3. The Art of Distraction
So far so good. He chucked the rubbers- I pretended to get mad- I sent him out. Meanwhile my message came- I was needed in the office. Outside I told the 'real-wild-child' to move quickly. He ran to the back door of the classroom, and let himself in- he hid under my carefully prepared desk.
4. It All Comes Together
When I re-entered the classroom it was quiet- and everybody was looking at me with a smile- the sort of hushed smile that keeps a secret. It was eerie. The 'real-wild-child' had told everybody to be quiet. They expected something exciting. I taught my lesson- I was on fire- inspired, enthusiastic. I told them the story of how a god revealed the secrets of farming:
"Ahura Mazda spoke to the Persian King in a dream- he showed him how to plant wheat- this was the birth of agriculture."
At this moment the 'real real child' picked up the bundle of wheat i'd left under the desk, and pushed the stalks through the gap in the desk. It was marvellous- spectacular- it was silly. Wheat pooped out of the desk- as if from nowhere.
The class gasped. My plan had worked. Not only had I delivered the lesson on Persian history- but I had created a bond with the 'real-wild child'. He never disrupted my lessons again- we got on well- we respected each other. All because of a little silliness. I recently heard that he'd graduated from Bristol University with a First Class Degree in Psychology. Funny hey.
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