For at least a few weeks now our 17-month old daughter has enjoyed playing with teddies and dolls, especially putting them into situations which she experiences. For example she'll want to brush their teeth or change their nappy.

We think this is fun, so we join in with it. Sometimes we play at making the doll throw a tantrum about having her teeth cleaned, complete with our imitation wailing noises - just like our daughter throws a tantrum when having her teeth cleaned. I have to admit that part of the reason we do it is a kind of ironic revenge on our sometimes-stroppy daughter.

What surprised us is that our daughter thinks the doll or teddy throwing a tantrum is hilarious, it always gets a good laugh.

I find it hard to believe that she really understands the irony of the situation, as she seems to be of average development for her age. Is this just a kind of humour that can be enjoyed on many levels?

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    It might have something to do with power dynamics. According to Happiest Toddler on the Block toddlers spend a lot of time feeling like the weakest and the smallest, so any time they get to feel bigger and better than someone/something they love it. Also Happiest Toddler recommends role play with dolls as a way of positive enforcement of rules, so if you have the dolly eventually give in nicely to her teeth brushing you might find it has a good effect on your daughter.
    – justkt
    Sep 12, 2013 at 12:22
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    @justkt that could be an answer... Sep 12, 2013 at 17:59
  • @justkt. That sounds very plausible, anecdotally, based on our experience. Certainly she loves feeling on a level with the adults, either looking down on people's heads as she's carried up the stairs, or sitting at the table in a high-chair. She also seems to give "instructions" at bath time when less-experienced grandparents are supposedly in charge. Sep 13, 2013 at 10:23
  • @justkt Please try to avoid using comments for answering questions. Use the 'answer' function instead. Thanks. Sep 13, 2013 at 17:02
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    @RobertCartaino - I can delete my comment, but as it was pure speculation I'm not sure "answer" is warranted.
    – justkt
    Sep 13, 2013 at 23:45

2 Answers 2


No, a toddler doesn't understand irony.

You're right about the levels: The irony is what makes it fun for you, but it's simply the action that makes it fun for her. You're playing with her, you're playing with a doll, you're making lots of noise.

To verify this, try this next time: Don't change your behavior but do change the topic (the reason for the doll's "tantrum"). Instead of the doll throwing a don't want to brush teeth tantrum, make her laugh and squirm because the toothbrush tickles her. I'd be willing to bet that you'd get the exact same reaction from your daughter. Your theatrics simply make it hilarious, regardless of the words and meaning.

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    Yes, of course you're right. I tried out your suggestion and the antics always make her laugh. Good thing is I now have plenty of ways of making her laugh. Thanks. Sep 20, 2013 at 8:15
  • Do it like "Mr Glubbles HATES folding diapers and laundry!" or how about "Mr Glubbles HATES picking up cheerios from the floor all day!" "Mr Floob HATES TRAFFIC on the way to work!" or maybe not. Hitting too close to home maybe.
    – monsto
    Sep 23, 2013 at 7:29

I don't think there's a clear answer to your question, I think there would be several theories but nobody knows for sure. Children's brains are less developed, and some of humor is definitely learned, however the raw sense of humor that comes genetically is still there. She may be picking up her cue from you, realizing you are doing something funny because you think it is funny, or she may be thinking it's funny all on her own.

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