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Modern Parenthood

Joan Rivers and April Fools: Teach your kids the difference between funny and hurtful

Joan Rivers has never taken it easy on Adele and recently poked at the Oscar-award winning star for her weight. For our kids, knowing the difference between a mean barb and harmless April Fools' Day joke can be difficult without guidance. 

By Lisa SuhayGuest Blogger / April 1, 2013

Joan Rivers, left, and her daughter Melissa Rivers in New York. Ms. Rivers' humor oftentimes comes at another's expense. How are kids supposed to pick up the subtle differences between a barb and a tease?

Dan Hallman/Associated Press

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Society encourages wicked little untruths to make fools of others on April Fools' Day for the sake of a laugh, but attacks comedian Joan Rivers for telling the unvarnished truth and hurting the feelings of wealthy public figures. Today is a good day to take a moment to examine the mixed messages we send children about truth, it’s temporary suspension, and when jokes go too far.

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Lisa Suhay, who has four sons at home in Norfolk, Va., is a children’s book author and founder of the Norfolk (Va.) Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) , a nonprofit organization serving at-risk youth via mentoring and teaching the game of chess for critical thinking and life strategies.

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This is the day, April Fools' Day, when little kids try to pass off Cheerios as “Donut Seeds” and foolish employees lose their jobs because they thought it hilarious to advertise the boss’ job in the local newspaper. It’s what I like to call Judgment Day, as in good or bad, your judgment is put to the test. It’s also an important day to fine tune parenting on truth, lies, and what’s not funny and why.

For Ms. Rivers, and comedians in general, Judgment Day is every day because they judge the world and their remarks either make us laugh, or want to throttle them. Dealing with very young kids isn’t so very different from working with comedians because kids are straight shooters and hilarity often is the result.

I recently stumbled across three vital questions, first asked by comedian Craig Ferguson, that I now ask myself regularly in order to keep out of trouble. I keep a printed copy taped beside my computer, by the phone, and on the white board in the kitchen. Yes, I need it that much and so do my kids.

It reads:

Does this need to be said?

Does this need to be said by me?

Does this need to be said by me, right now?”

For comedians, the answer is always a resounding “Yes!” to all three questions. For kids, we need to tell them that the answer will generally be, “Nope.” Now I’ll tell you why that is.

Art Linkletter made his early career by asking children basic questions and getting funny, honest, politically incorrect answers on the show “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” Yet, we really don’t celebrate honesty when a child tells grandma on the phone, “I really don’t feel like talking to you right now because I’d rather play with the cat.”

I was raised in New York City under the code of, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” However, I now live in the South where you can verbally kill someone with kindness and a smile. As author Isaac Goldberg once said, “Diplomacy is to do and say the nastiest things in the nicest way.”  

Of course, the vital difference here is the intent of what’s said. Is it mean, or does it mean well? Rivers has always claimed her japes are well intentioned and that the celebrity victims aren’t bothered by the attacks. That seems unlikely. Maybe they’re just telling that socially correct little white lie and need to tell the truth about how celebrity bullying makes them feel.

It really does become a vicious social lie-cycle as people hide the truth about hurt feelings in order to avoid further conflict with the one inflicting the emotional pain. If you are a celebrity and someone says you’re “fat” and justifies it by adding that your wealth and celebrity make you “fair game,” perhaps it’s time to let the truth set you and others free. What is the real tangible difference between a kid in the school yard calling a girl “fatso” versus one wealthy celebrity doing so to another?

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