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

I meet the neatest people through social media.  Recently, I met Signe Whitson, LSW, a Licensed Social Worker. She connected with me and we discussed her doing a guest post.  After learning more about her area of expertise, I didn't hesitate to suggest the topic of using sarcasm with kids.

Hearing adults use sarcasm with young children is like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard to me.  I know that adults don't often realize how sarcasm is not only lost on young children, but that it can be damaging, too.  If more folks understood this, I truly believe that they would refrain from doing so. 

Signe rose to the occasion and produced this post before I could even grab another cup of coffee.  Without further ado, here is Signe's take on it all:

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

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.

Signe Whitson, LSW is a licensed social worker and the co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, 2nd ed. She is the Chief Operating Officer of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute, an organization that provides training for professionals in turning crisis situations into learning opportunities for children and youth with chronic patterns of self-defeating behaviors. Signe is also the mother of two young daughters. Please visit her blog at http://www.passiveaggressivediaries.blogspot.com/


Subway Mom said…
OMG... this is fabulous. I have to forward it to my dad who insists on using sarcasm with my daughter. Even though she's just 3, she gets offended with his remarks and sometimes talks back or walks off. Of course both actions are regarded as rude by the older generation. And I'm trying ever so hard to get them to understand that she doesn't like sarcastic remarks.
Thank you, Signe, for writing this so nicely and shedding light on a subject that should not at all be taken lightly.
Maggie said…
Thank you for this post. It is even applicable to adults who use sarcasm with other adults. They're protected, but the receiver isn't. Brilliant.

Agreed! Thanks for stopping by!

Wendy =)
Subway Mom,

Thanks so much for your comment, too. I hope the article makes a difference for your daughter/dad.

Sorry I missed commenting on your post so long ago!

Wendy =)
Mama2Mischief said…
I just found your blog and LOVE this article!! I was never exposed to sarcasm until I was a freshman in high school.... and it was awful. I was very bad at distinguishing reality from sarcasm, and I became very distrustful of sarcastic people. I am so grateful that I wasn't subjected to it earlier than that, and have made a point of avoiding it with my children.

This article just solidified my resolve to make sure others who are around my children avoid sarcasm as well. THANK YOU!!!
Dear Mama,

Thanks for stopping by and taking time to comment. Sarcasm can lead to hurt feelings, misunderstandings and more. I am glad you were not exposed to it when you were younger, also. You are wise to avoid sarcasm with your own kids, too! Stop in and see us again, sometime!

~Wendy =)
Lisa said…
Here's a true story- and I was never a stupid child. My dad called me Big Ears the whole time I was growing up. I remember him calling me that when I was about four, in front of now defunct department store. I was a freshman in college when my girlfriends were trying to put my hair up for me and I said, "No- I've got huge ears." My girlfriends laughed at me and said, "Lisa, your ears are almost too small!" They had me look at my ears in comparison to theirs. I just took the comment as fact because my dad said it.
10 minutes ago · Like

Thanks for sharing your story with us. Just more proof that the things parents (or other adults) may say in a joking manner...or with a hint of sarcasm...stick with kids and become their internal message that plays over and over in their head. Whether or not it has any basis in fact (and it usually does not)! I hope you have now changed your "internal message"!

Wendy =)
Unknown said…
We use sarcasm so much, adults don't really understand because it takes skill to think of a witty comeback, and sarcasm is used a ton. "Where did you get your shirt?" *mean tone, as implying its ugly. "At a store, where did you get yours?" Always gets a laugh
Thanks for weighing in, Bob!

Wendy =)

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