Med thumb kid laughing film strip

Babies might not understand why the chicken crossed the road or why the shrimp wouldn’t sell his treasure (he’s a little shellfish, obviously). But the chubby-cheeked are not devoid of a sense of humor. A new psychology study says that adults should put on their funny faces for the under-three set more often, as a toddler’s social and emotional development could depend on it.

Actually, the research, published this month in Cognitive Science, reinforces the benefits of two parent-child activities: joking around and “playing pretend,” which basically translates to anthropomorphizing inanimate objects or otherwise creating reality-subverting scenarios.

Psychologists set up two experiments for the study, according to a release from the University of Sheffield. The first was a riff on charades: Through actions only, parents joked around and played pretend with babies aged 16- to 20-months. They “joked” by purposely misusing objects, e.g., putting a fake phone on their head. To play pretend, they simulated activities, such as washing their hands without soap or water.

In the other experiment, parents of slightly older toddlers (up to two-years-old) joked and played around, but they got to use their words. So, rather than just place a rubber chicken on their head, a parent would explicitly say the chicken was a hat. And, they’d instruct kids to pretend a ball was a horse.

In both cases, parents conveyed a tone of disbelief when they joked and played. The kids picked up on their parents’ tones, and reciprocated by communicating disbelief in their verbal and gesticulatory responses.

We humans love to kid with one another — to form bonds, express ideas and feelings, and cast light on all sorts of situations. The ability to understand when other people are just screwing around or speaking figuratively is useful — arguably necessary, even — in building relationships and relating to other people. Picking up on sarcasm hinges on sensing tone and visual cues, which, the study suggests, babies can begin to grasp at a young age. And for better or worse, real-life conversations don’t come with emojis.