Why Sarcasm Often Falls Flat with Children
Nothing tickles my funny bone more than a dry sense of humor and a subtle ironic observation. When well-timed, sarcasm is the basis of clever adult banter in both work and personal settings. On the other hand, few things make me squirm as much as misunderstood humor with kids. Grown-ups who use sarcasm with young children risk being incorrectly interpreted at best and creating lasting wounds at worst.
It’s Not What You Say; It’s How You Say It
What do the phrases “Way to go,” “Smooth move,” and “Nice job” all have in common? Each statement in its literal form reads as socially appropriate praise, but in spoken word may more closely resemble stinging, verbal aggression. Sarcasm relies on a type of subtlety that most children under the age of eight do not pick up on. Studies show that while more than 80% of adult communication occurs non-verbally—through gestures, body languages, and tone of voice—children are much more attuned to literal interpretation. They tend to miss or disregard non-verbal cues and rely almost exclusively on an adult’s exact words.
Obvious to Whom?
When an adult uses a snarky tone to tell his child, “You have quite an unusual sense of style,” the other adults in the room share an amused laugh at the obvious mismatch of red stripes and orange polka-dots. On the other hand, the child thinks either:
- I should pick out my own school clothing every day, or:
- This grown-up is odd.
In either case, a miscommunication has occurred. Sarcasm is rarely obvious to young children and often results in important social messages being lost in translation.
What’s Good for the Goose
It is almost always the case that adults are better at delivering sarcasm than they are at receiving it from children. By its very definition, sarcasm is biting and critical. When children mimic an adult’s sarcastic tone and direct cynical words toward their parents, teachers, and other adults, they are most likely to come across as ill-mannered and disrespectful. In a school setting, a child who uses sarcasm is frequently misunderstood by his peers and poorly regarded by professional staff.
While humor is a glue that binds many families together, sarcasm can hinder a child’s ability to form positive relationships elsewhere. Adults who role model a more universally understood brand of humor teach their kids to connect with others in a far more positive way. Sarcasm is a great way to interact with kids—NOT!
Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker, freelance writer, and author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd, ed. She is also the mother to two young daughters. Check out her blog and share your own examples of passive aggression. She is also a writer for My Baby Clothes dot com. Check out the fantastic selection of baby clothes, baby headbands, tutus and all your other essential needs.