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"Very Funny!" Why Sarcasm Is No Laughing Matter for Kids

Sarcasm relies on a type of subtlety that most children under the age of eight do not pick up on.
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What do the phrases "Nice job," "Very funny," and "That was clever" all have in common? Each statement in its literal form reads as socially appropriate praise, but in spoken word may more closely resemble caustic, verbal aggression. In the true spirit of "It's not what you say but rather how you say it," grown-ups who use sarcasm with young children risk being misunderstood at best and creating lasting wounds at worst.

Clever Banter or Callous Mockery?

Sarcasm is the schtick of many successful comedians and often underlies witty banter amongst adults in both work and personal settings. This socially acceptable form of humor makes light of life's ironies and even helps criticism seem more refined and less rude. When used with young children, however, sarcasm loses its couth and is often reduced to callousness. What accounts for the differences in interpretation?

Sarcasm Relies on Subtlety; Kids Do Not

First and foremost, sarcasm relies on a type of subtlety that most children under the age of eight do not pick up on. While the majority of adult communication occurs non-verbally--through gestures, body languages, and tone of voice -- children are much more apt to interpret words literally and to miss or disregard non-verbal cues. Therefore, when an adult uses a snarky tone to tell his child, "I just love the way your food looks all chewed up inside of your mouth," the other adults at the table share an amused stomach-turn while the child thinks either:

1. I should eat with my mouth open more often, or:
2. This grown-up is sort of weird.

Either way, a miscommunication has occurred. If the adult's goal is to teach the child a valuable lesson in table manners and etiquette, he is better off asking the child directly to chew with his mouth closed.

'Tis Better to Give Than to Receive

Most adults are better at dishing it out than they are at taking it when it comes to sarcasm with their kids. Sarcasm is, by definition, biting and critical. When it originates with children and is directed toward parents, teachers, or other adults, it often sounds disrespectful and ill-mannered. Yet, children who use sarcasm most often learn this brand of humor from their parents who role model it. While humor is a glue that binds many families together, sarcasm can be the wit that wounds.

Sugarcoated Hostility

Sarcasm, when used repeatedly, is a form of verbal abuse. It is a passive aggressive behavior in which the speaker expresses covert hostilities in sugarcoated, "humorous" ways. When a coach says, "Don't work too hard out there on the field. I wouldn't want you to get a blister" his intention of publicly calling out a player's lack of effort is clear. At the same time, the coach can justify his statements to an offended parent by claiming, "What? I was only kidding. Can't your kid take a joke?" Insults veiled as sarcastic humor give the adult speaker a shield to hide behind but do nothing to protect their young recipient from real, lasting damage to self-esteem and to his relationship with the passive aggressive adult.

Sarcasm is a great way to interact with kids--NOT! When adults use sarcasm to say things they don't mean and mean things that they don't literally say, they lose an opportunity to communicate effectively and to build positive relationships with kids. While sarcasm amongst adults can make for playful banter, for young children, this caustic form of humor is rarely funny.