Care and Feeding

For Your Own Amusement

Am I a bad parent for laughing when my kids get hurt?

A child who's fallen in the background, in the foreground a woman covering her mouth while laughing.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Am I a bad parent for laughing when my kids get hurt?

—Chuckles the Mom

Dear Chuckles,

Am I a bad parenting advice columnist for laughing at your incredibly to-the-point letter? And for laughing when my kid gets hurt? I sure hope not!

Let’s be clear: There’s a difference between struggling to stifle your giggles when your kiddo takes a comical tumble that results in tears but no tears, and cracking up when they fall down a flight of stairs and end up spending the next month in a cast. I’m assuming that you are referring to instances in which there’s little pain or consequence, because it would be downright cruel, super odd, and worth exploring with a therapist if you find yourself amused when your children are truly hurt.

We learn to laugh at falls from kids’ TV shows and movies from a very young age, only to grow up and find that bodily harm continues to be used as a comedic device in entertainment targeting adults as well. Turning that inclination off because the person in question is a child, let alone our child, can be difficult. I’d wager that a mom who laughs at her child taking an America’s Funniest Home Videos-worthy tumble would also laugh if her partner had been the klutz in question, or a stranger, or even if she’d bit the pavement herself.

Laughter can also be a nervous reaction to the brief moment of stress or fear you experienced before realizing that your kid hasn’t been hurt badly in whatever situation that has taken place.

Personally, I’ve been struggling to suppress giggles in inappropriate situations my entire life: during funerals and parental lectures, in quiet classrooms, and, most frequently, when faced with people who take themselves entirely too seriously. Still, I was somewhat horrified the first time my then-toddler daughter took a spill and I found myself chuckling. It was yet another reminder that while parenting has made me, in many ways, a better person, it certainly hasn’t made me a different person altogether. I still hate waking up early, I still have a woefully short attention span, and I still think it is fuh-NEE when people fall down (as long as they are OK when they get up, of course; I’m not a monster!).

However, even though we can’t snap our fingers and become the super mature, stiff-upper-lipped adults that would never dream of laughing in the face of our beloved babies, we must be sensitive to how laughter can make an unamused kid feel. Children are quite sensitive, and as a result, they tend to have outsized reactions to things like sending their ice cream cone flying down the block after slipping on a wet sidewalk, or stumbling in a new pair of shoes for the fifth time in one already-crummy morning. The last thing you want to do is make your kids feel that you don’t take their pain—real or contrived, physical or emotional—seriously. Furthermore, as is the case with folks of all ages, an already upset child is likely to feel even worse when they see that their moment of discomfort has caused what appears to be a delighted reaction.

So you may have to do your absolute best to hide your amusement when your kids get hurt. If you have any sort of device that you use to keep your emotions in check during other uncomfortable or serious moments (i.e. thinking of something gravely serious, biting the inside of your cheeks, diverting your eyes), you definitely should employ them. Rushing to go grab them a first-aid kit or a cup of water can buy you a moment to pull it together.

If you do end up getting caught red-faced, apologize and explain that you are experiencing a bout of nervous laughter, and that it was the stress of being scared for their safety combined with the relief at knowing that they were going to be OK that confused your brain and found you laughing in spite of not being amused at all. Good luck!