Most children love telling knock knock jokes – the traditional call and response gives them such power.
When a child says, “Knock knock,” you have to say, “Who’s there?” That’s the system!
The jokes aren’t funny. They’re never funny. At their worst, they’re also long – “Orange-n’t you glad I didn’t say banana?”
And yet, kids know that when they say, “Knock knock,” you have to say “Who’s there?”
Until, one day, somebody doesn’t.
In “Rational Snacking: Young Children’s Decision-Making on the Marshmallow Task Is Moderated by Beliefs about Environmental Reliability,”Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri, & Richard Aslin write that:
“When children draw on walls, reject daily baths, or leave the house wearing no pants and a tutu, caretakers may reasonably doubt their capacity for rational decision-making.”
“However, recent evidence suggests that even very young children possess sophisticated decision-making capabilities …”
The authors conducted an experiment: a marshmallow was set in front of a small child; the child was told that if they waited to eat it, they’d be given two marshmallows instead; the child was left alone in the room with the marshmallow for up to fifteen minutes.
This is a common experiment – variants have been conducted since the 1970s. In Kidd, Palmeri, & Aslin’s 2013 version, each child was first shown that the researcher offering marshmallows was either reliable or unreliable. At the beginning of each child’s encounter with the researcher, the researcher provided mediocre art supplies and promised that, if the child waited, the researcher would bring something better. Then the researcher either fulfilled that promise (bringing fresh markers or cool stickers!), or came back offering only apologies and saying that the child should just use the mediocre supplies that had been in the room all along. The wait had been for naught!
During the subsequent marshmallow test, children were asked to trust this same researcher to fulfill a promise, even after being shown that the researcher wasn’t reliable.
The children who’d been disappointed were less likely to wait.
Actually, it’s not just “knock knock” jokes – none of the jokes that children tell are funny.
And yet, parents feign excitement. We smile, maybe even laugh.
My kids are two years apart. When they were six and four, my younger child would often watch and listen and then tell the exact same joke to me.
I’d do my best to respond in the exact same way. As though surely I couldn’t know – no child wants for you to actually try to guess the answer when they tell a joke.
“I don’t know, where does a cow go for entertainment?”
Eventually a child will experience disillusionment from the world; it needn’t come from a caretaker.
At the end of Kidd, Palmeri, & Aslin’s marshmallow experiment, every child was given evidence that the researchers were unreliable. No matter if the child had waited to eat the marshmallow or had scarfed it right away, each child was given three additional marshmallows.
No child’s expectations were met. And the children who’d decided that waiting was pointless had their beliefs reinforced.
In the great scheme of things, giving children a few extra marshmallows doesn’t cause much harm. Although it’s curious that this group of researchers would intentionally undermine children’s trust in scientists.
At the local high school, the boys’ bathroom adjacent to the cafeteria doesn’t have soap. Empty plastic shells are affixed to the wall where soap dispensers used to be.
There’s a soap dispenser in the hallway outside the bathroom. If someone wanted to wash their hands properly, they’d have to turn on a sink, get their hands wet, walk outside, use the dispenser, then walk back into the bathroom to rinse the soap off. Few students do.
The administration removed the dispensers because some students were stealing them, and, at least once, somebody urinated into the soap pouch – these students needed devious licks to boast about on social. Similar incidents happened all around the country.
The problem, several high school seniors insisted to me, is that schools were closed for a while during the pandemic, which meant that current sophomores and juniors didn’t get bullied enough during middle school.
Obviously, their theory is ridiculous – “more bullying” is never a good solution to the world’s problems. But I find it fascinating that this would be the students’ first hypothesis. That the underlying problem isn’t that children were forcibly isolated during a crucial phase of their development, nor that we’ve inundated children’s lives with addictive, psychologically manipulative smartphone apps. No, the real problem is that these young people weren’t bullied enough!
By middle school, nearly all students will have experienced the disillusionment of having a knock knock joke batted away without a “Who’s there?” in response – I believe most middle school humor still revolves around sex, sarcasm, and dead baby jokes.
But I find it difficult to believe that young people – whose lives transitioned from in-person interactions with people their own age to transpiring almost entirely on the internet – would’ve experienced significantly less bullying during the pandemic. The internet is a nightmare!
The best audience for a child’s knock knock joke is another child – maybe, just maybe, a child might think it’s funny to hear the turnabout from “Boo who?” to “Oh, what’s wrong, are you hurt?”
The interaction is personal, localized, and impermanent.
And when the disillusionment comes – a friend not saying “Who’s there?” – the moment is brief and private.
How much worse might it feel to have your moments of embarrassment linger in full view?
Personally, I’m embarrassed about the world we’re building for young people.