My 5-year-old called a German boy "Hitler:" Teaching context and humor to kids

The language of humor is hard for adults to understand, let alone a child who mimics what he hears around him without knowing the proper context. 

Humor wielded by a child can be hit or miss. Children may not understand the context behind why a joke in certain settings is funny and in others strictly taboo, or why a pie in the face is thrilling for some, middle, but not for all, left and right. Pie eating content, May.

A few weeks ago my son Cai was playing soccer with another boy, who I'll call Peter. More than a year younger than Cai and considerably shorter, Peter turned out to have a ferocious competitive streak not yet tempered by the "winning doesn't matter" ethos. He was bossy and shouted frequently, and finally Cai shrugged his shoulders and said, "You just can't deal with these Hitler people."

If you haven't already figured it out, Peter is German, we're Jewish, and the boys are pre-school classmates at the Jerusalem American International School. My husband came home and described what happened to me when Cai was out of earshot.

"He didn't say that," I insisted. "He didn't."

"He did," my husband assured me, adding that Peter's father had been standing nearby and heard every word.

Webster's dictionary defines mortification as "a sense of humiliation and shame caused by something that wounds one's pride or self-respect," and that's a fairly accurate description of what I felt at that moment. Like most things that have nothing to do with me, I quickly made the incident about myself. 

"You can't make jokes about Hitler," I told Cai later that evening after I'd pulled myself together. "It makes people feel bad. Peter's father heard what you said and you might have hurt his feelings." 

"It's OK," Cai assured me. "Because it wasn't him. It was his ancestors." He waved his hand behind him extravagantly, as if to indicate that entire centuries separated Hitler and the present.
Amazing, I thought. Only 5, and he instinctively understood that "tragedy plus time equals comedy," a quote attributed to two American comedy greats, Carol Burnett and Woody Allen.
"You're right," I agreed. "If you made a joke about the Vikings to the Swedish kids in your school, that would be funny. But this isn't." 

I explained to Cai that the second world war ended less than 70 years ago. I told him that it's still a sensitive subject because a lot of bad things happened, and some Germans might still feel ashamed about it. And for good measure, I suggested that he also not make any Hitler jokes to Bubby and Saba, his grandparents.

Cai said he understood, stored the information somewhere in his 5-year-old consciousness, and then started talking about an episode of Phineas and Ferb.

After he went to sleep, I was left to wonder why I had felt such shame. I think it's because I blamed myself for Cai's ad hominem attack against Peter. I was raised in a home where the Holocaust was remembered, talked about, analyzed, personalized, and meditated upon more than any other topic. We boycotted German products, wouldn't dream of stepping foot on German soil, and just hearing someone speak German filled me with terror. I don't blame my family for this upbringing – my grandfather's entire family was killed in Auschwitz. But as a member of the third-generation, I believed that I was raising my son in a different environment, a more universal one, less about blame and recrimination and focus on the past, and more about love and acceptance and living in the present. But here was proof that my high-minded aspirations were all a sham.

"No," my husband assured me. "It's me. I make jokes about Hitler all the time."

In Britain, he explained, Hitler jokes are a national pastime. Placing two fingers above your lip to simulate a mustache, while raising your hand in 'heil' and simultaneously goose-stepping was just something that kids did for fun.

He's not making this up. When Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006, a British Football Association official had to warn fans traveling to see the matches that "doing mock Nazi salutes or fake impersonations of Hitler – that's actually against the law in Germany." John Cleese and Prince Harry are among the more famous Hitler and Nazi mockers.

In light of all the British levity around the subject, my husband speculated that perhaps he'd mentioned Hitler a few too many times around Cai without offering the proper context.

If he were older, I might try to explain to Cai that sometimes it is OK to joke about Hitler, like in the play and film "The Producers" by Mel Brooks. A Der Spiegel interviewer once asked Mel Brooks if he thought that a dancing and singing Hitler was "a bit tasteless." Mr, Brooks replied, "Of course. But it’s also funny, isn’t it?"

Cai, however, is still 5 years old. The subtleties of the proper context for Hitler jokes are still a bit beyond him. We've since apologized to Peter's father. We'll have to make a play date with Peter soon. I think we'll leave the soccer ball at home.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.