Are You A Bad Parent For Using Sarcasm Around Your Kids? Experts Have Thoughts.

Are You A Bad Parent For Using Sarcasm Around Your Kids? Experts Have Thoughts.

When I started my first teaching job, among the many things I was warned not to do (“Don’t smile until Christmas!”) was using sarcasm. This was bad for kids, somehow, and would be harmful to them. It seemed a strange prohibition to me, given that my students were teenagers, and sarcasm was practically their lingua franca. In the end, I gradually lifted this prohibition (and many others) as I gained experience, learning that sarcasm, like any other mode of communication, can work well when deployed skillfully at the right moment.

Perhaps you’ve heard similar advice regarding the use of sarcasm with children: that they won’t “get” it and the consequences will be terrible. But while it’s true that it takes kids time to learn to read sarcasm, the same is true for every other variety of language. Kids can learn that “it’s raining cats and dogs” doesn’t actually mean animals are falling from the sky, just as when the trash bag breaks open and you say “Awesome,” you are not actually pleased.

The problem is that people often use sarcasm to be mean and criticize others. This is likely where the prohibitions come from, but they’re based on a more narrow view of what sarcasm can be. It isn’t specifically sarcasm that will hurt a child’s feelings, but any type of cruelty. Kind, appropriate humor — which can provide joy and relief — is laughing with your child, instead of at them. So long as you aren’t using sarcasm to be mean to your child or berate them, there’s no need to avoid it, and since they’re going to encounter plenty of it in life, it’s also a good idea for parents to help them learn to recognize it.

Some might argue that sarcasm is always cruel, otherwise it is simply irony, but either way, your primary concern here is your child’s comprehension and their feelings, not semantics.

When are kids able to understand sarcasm?

As with any other mode of language, it takes some time for kids to learn how to read sarcasm.

Two things have to be in place, according to Melanie Glenwright, a professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba. “The first one is cognitive development,” Glenwright told HuffPost. Kids need to be “able to think about another person’s beliefs and intentions,” she explained.

They need “the ability to understand another person’s perspective,” Penny Pexman, a professor of psychology at Western University in Ontario, told HuffPost.

“With sarcasm, speakers say something very different than what they mean, sometimes even opposite to what they mean, and it’s not intuitive to children that people would do this,” Pexman said.

To “get” sarcasm, kids have to be able to comprehend that people don’t always mean what they say and that they sometimes do this in order to be funny.

They won’t have these skills right away. Glenwright says kids are usually 5 or 6 when they become capable of recognizing that a person may say something other than what they mean. “But it isn’t until ages 7 to 10 where children living in Canada begin to understand that a sarcastic speaker intends to be funny,” she continued, citing her own research.

The second thing that kids need in order to understand sarcasm is exposure. They won’t be able to recognize someone using sarcasm until they’ve seen it a few times, and they may need a little explanation from you on those occasions.

From her research, Pexman has come to see it as a “pretty impressive achievement when children develop the ability to understand [sarcasm].”

Why should kids learn about sarcasm?

Sarcasm isn’t avoidable. “As far as we know, sarcasm exists in all languages and cultures,” Pexman said. “It is in children’s story books, movies and TV shows. As such, children are going to encounter it, and I think parents can help prepare them to grasp it.”

Interestingly, Glenwright has found in her work that cultures vary in the frequency that they use sarcasm. “Children living in Poland recognize sarcasm at a younger age than children living in Canada,” she said. She believes that this is a result of more frequent exposure, stemming from value differences between cultures. In comparison to Canadians, she sees the Polish as “less worried about insulting people, and they have a higher value culturally on truthfulness and honesty.”

In the U.S., she added, researchers have found regional differences. New Yorkers use more sarcasm than people living in Southern states, for example.

While you don’t need to keep a strict tally of how often you use sarcasm around your kids, there’s no need to limit your use of it around them. This way, they’ll become accustomed to the way it is used in your family and your culture.

“I think it’s helpful for parents to indeed use sarcasm around their children so that they’re better equipped when they encounter it in the real world to recognize when people are using it,” Glenwright said.

In other research, she has found that “children whose parents use sarcasm more often have a better understanding of it.”

“They were better able to recognize it if their parents used it more and they were more likely to recognize that humor component,” she explained.

The caveat, of course, is that you do not use sarcasm to mock or belittle your child — or any other person.

“Kind humor is the way to go,” Glenwright said. “The butt of jokes can be objects, things, situations — not people, not their attributes or skills.”

For example, I might pull a tray of burnt cookies out of the oven and ask, “Do you think they’re done?” The punchline here is the blackened baked goods, not a person. Similarly, when the doors of the subway close in front of us after running to make it on board, I might say, “Great, we’ll definitely be on time now.” Both of these, in fact, are instances in which I use sarcastic humor to try to lighten the mood when things didn’t go the way we wanted.

Glenwright pointed out that in addition to bringing humor to a situation, adults sometimes use sarcasm to soften a criticism or to strengthen a social bond. It can have positive uses.

How do I talk to my child about sarcasm?

There’s no need to create a slide presentation to teach your child about sarcasm. Glenwright said that “pointing out natural occurrences of it in everyday conversation or on television,” will give you plenty of opportunities for kids to learn. She suggested trying to “unpack” examples for them. You can use questions like, “Do you think that’s what they really believe?” and talk about other signals such as tone of voice and body language, like eye rolling. You may also be able to identify phrases, such as “Nice work,” that people tend to use when they’re being sarcastic.

If you’re the one using sarcasm and are met with blank or confused looks, Pexman said she would “explain to any youngsters around that I’m being sarcastic, saying the opposite of what I really think.”

There’s developmental value to the humor that families share. “Our research shows that sarcasm tends to run in families, and family conversations are the testing ground for children’s early jokes and humor,” Pexman said. “Embrace that and do your best to help children understand your humor and develop their own sense of sarcasm.”

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