Happy family
Age-appropriate humour is important when dealing with kids. Pranking may backfire, causing not laughter but a child's self-confidence to erode. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Social media has done it again – it’s made a challenge to parents go viral. Across the globe, mums and dads are telling their young – sometimes toddler-aged - children that they need to go fight someone and need the kid along for back-up. Their reactions are then filmed and uploaded – for views and follows.

Some efforts may make you smile – enthusiastic kids putting their fists up at a moment’s notice – while others will prompt a grimace, after all, no one wants to see a sad, scared kid.

But is it cruel or just a harmless joke? Pranking – or playing a practical joke – some say, is power for the growing up course. Dubai-based Indian expat Jane Ferns, for example, is all for developing her twins’ sense of humour. “For me pranking children is fine provided we set some boundaries and do it for fun. As my children grow, I would want them to learn how to face the world outside, understand the good aspect of humour and yet feel safe to be at home. As long as my children don’t suffer any emotional pain, are having a good laugh and get to see the fun side of me as parent, I am all in for pranking,” she explains.

And therein lies the rub. What may be an innocuous moment for one child may be a trust-crumbling episode for another.

Think of another prank that goes viral each year around Halloween or Christmas – the one where parents pretend to eat all the kids’ candy. Their reactions are distress and when they reach out for comfort, they are laughed at and filmed instead.

Safety net has holes

Nashwa Tantawy, Counselling Psychologist at Openminds Centre, Dubai, explains: “Parents and care givers are the main source of safety, security and trust for their children. They create their early relationships that build their future views and core beliefs towards themselves, others and the world around them.

“Younger children feel that home and family are a safe place where they feel emotionally and physically protected. In many cases, pranking younger children can cause levels of anxiety, sadness and loss of trust. They don’t understand why their parents are lying to them about something that is causing them unpleasant feelings of sadness, anger or fear.”

Mexican mum of two, Sandy Zanella finds no humour in undermining a child’s belief in a guardian. “As a mum, one of my ultimate goals is for my kids to trust me so that they can rely on me in every way is vitally important and pranking them can undermine trust,” she says. “Joking and laughing with our kids is a great way to enjoy some time together, in fact a healthy sense of humour can even help reduce anxiety but I never liked pranks like the ones you see on social media because if you pay close attention is usually the parents the only ones laughing.”

This was certainly the case when a parent on social media platform decided to ‘spray a child with water until they say something’. As the reel plays on, you can see that they blatantly ignore their child’s plea to stop with the drizzle, choosing to continue filming instead. (The blowback was intense and just as viral as the video.)

Age-appropriate content

A chief consideration when it comes to exposing a child to a style of humour must be age, say the experts. “Parents need to understand the cognitive development phase of their children and not to assume that a seven-year-old child will take a prank or a joke like a 15-year-old teen, for example. Putting in mind their individuality, as some children can take pranks lightly and laugh, while others can have an anxiety attack,” says Tantawy.

Parents need to understand the cognitive development phase of their children and not to assume that a seven-year-old child will take a prank or a joke like a 15-year-old teen, for example. Putting in mind their individuality, as some children can take pranks lightly and laugh, while others can have an anxiety attack

- Nashwa Tantawy

Some of this is because of the unerring belief kids have in their parents helped along by the fact that they can’t tell reality from story up until a certain age. According to a 2005 study titled ‘Humour development: an important cognitive and social skill in the growing child’, published in the international peer-reviewed journal 'Physical and Occupational Therapy In Pediatrics', children between the ages of two and seven like knock-knock jokes and slapstick comedy. It is only from the age of seven however that they’ll even begin to comprehend puns or satire. As for ‘being able to take a joke’ or being the butt of a prank, that is the colour of a personality; just as some trip-ups are okay for some adults, some pranks are okay for some kids, traumatic for others.

Should one banter with kids?

"Often, dad's tease and banter with their children. When children reach their tweens, bantering becomes a part of their social world," says Kirstan P. Lloyd, Clinical Psychologist at UAE-based Reverse Psychology. "Those who haven't been exposed to age-appropriate banter often don't know how to navigate peer relationships. They struggle to process knowing if teasing is malicious or playful and they also struggle to know how to banter with others. In many ways, dad's gentle teasing and poking fun can help prepare children for later social interactions as they get older."

Inji Elatrash, a UAE-based Egyptian mum of three, has a blanket ban on pranking kids. “Some children are very sensitive,” she explains, “They can take it very personally, internalising the ridicule.” A moment of playfulness turns into generational trauma that can raze a child’s self-esteem and hurtle them towards failure.

Meanwhile, another twin mum who lives in Dubai, calls for a more measured approach to joking around with children. “I’m an energetic mother who love to joke around with my children but when it comes to pranks, for me, it depends on both the prank, circumstances, and the child itself. Some pranks are harmless and leave only joy and happiness verses some other pranks can actually have an impact on the child, on different levels. Sometimes in ways that we parents may not be aware about,” she tells Gulf News in an interview.

“However, parenting is not only about to protect our children from the world out there, we do also prepare them for the reality and what’s to come. By pranking your child, you make your child in early years understand that what you first believe, see and hear might not be the trough. It’s good to questioning things in your environment,” she adds.

‘The day I stopped trusting’
It was a cool winter morning but when dad came home he was sweating. Calling out, ‘Your mum has died’, he ran around calling on us children to gather around. As one wept and the other looked on wide-eyed and dumbfounded, mum came in, silencing him. As father laughed at the ‘prank he had played’ to see his kids’ reactions and we melted into our mum’s embrace, we found nothing funny about the ‘joke’. The result has been a lifetime of scepticism when it comes to believing what he says – facts must be checked and then checked again before being taken seriously.
-35 year old who wishes to stay anonymous

“This doesn’t mean not having fun with your kids. There are so many ways to enjoy your time with your kids, have fun and laugh, including pranking as well. But be mindful of the type of jokes you use, the appropriate age and the temperament of your child,” suggests Tantawy. After all, laughing with is so much better than laughing at.

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