Kids and sarcasm: Coping with cheeky communication

Sarcasm may seem rude, but teaching kids how to take it, and dish it out, is important. Here's the lowdown on dealing with kids and sarcasm.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

I picked my nine-year old son up from his dad’s house and hoped he wouldn’t notice my appearance. My kid-free weekend went horribly awry after the failed pairing of shiraz and a home haircut, and he wasn’t in the car long before I heard, “Nice haircut, Mom.”

This wasn’t his first attempt at sarcasm. Similar comments had been coming fast and furious during the previous months. What was happening to my once-sweet child?

Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of a child’s brutal honesty knows how perceptive kids are, and as they get older, not-so-nice comments are sometimes delivered on purpose. London, Ont., psychotherapist Andrea Nair says that sarcasm (defined as the ironic use of words to mock or convey contempt) can be rude, but it’s also age appropriate. I was relieved to hear this, because it meant my son’s sarcasm wasn’t my fault — it was developmental (I can blame biology). Nair explains that around age nine or ten, kids start taking more notice of what their friends are saying — and how they’re saying it – and may begin testing boundaries in conversations, including using sarcasm.

Nair also says that kids may turn to sarcasm because their parents use it. Gulp. I guess I can’t blame it all on biology, because I’m guilty as charged. On one hand, I’m proud of my son’s complex understanding of how to turn such a subtle phrase, but I don’t want his quick tongue to unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings — mine included.

Melanie Glenwright, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, has spent years researching kids and sarcasm, and says that while outlawing its use may seem instinctive, it isn’t the best tactic. “It’s not necessarily a bad skill to have, and parents who try to prevent children from using sarcasm may be doing them a disservice,” Glenwright says. Learning to interpret sarcasm meant as humour is best done in a safe environment like the family home, she explains, because parents will likely approach sarcastic comments in a considerate manner, but there’s no guarantee a stranger will. A sarcastic “Nice job!” when Dad spills milk may come off as a little cheeky, but a similar comment made to a stranger at a restaurant would be insulting. Understanding sarcasm can also help kids learn to better manage hurt feelings when they find themselves on the receiving end of it.

The key is ensuring your kids recognize there’s a time and place for sarcasm — and situations when it’s definitely not appropriate. But what if the comments become constant or hurtful? Nair says that communication is vital, and the first step toward controlling sarcasm is letting your child know that her words can sting. “If it’s hurtful, say ‘Ouch!’” Nair suggests, to open a dialogue about the comment. But take a moment to cool down first, if necessary, since a rational conversation may not be possible if you’re reeling from a thoughtless barb. “It’s usually best to coach a child about communication gone sideways when emotions are calm,” Nair says.

Glenwright also has a useful strategy. She says that sarcasm can be less hurtful if you teach your child to direct the comment to the object, not the person. In my case, we could lambaste the dull scissors, not my lack of salon skills, for my weekend Hairpocalypse.

After my son and I got home, I told him that I agreed — cutting my own hair wasn’t the best idea. But I added that he had hurt my feelings, and he understood. I haven’t seen a complete end to his zingers, but I rarely hear personal jabs these days (it helps that I now leave my hair-trimming needs to the professionals). And when he makes a clever comment that hits the mark, instead of worrying about what kind of kid I’ve raised, I join in on the fun.

A version of this article appeared in our January 2014 issue with the headline “What… ever!” p. 51.

A little sarcasm is okay but teach them some manners while they’re young. Check out this video for more tips:

Read more:
Is there a cure for backtalk?
Kids’ behaviour: 10 things to forgive them for (and why)
6 ways to keep your kids behaviour in check during the holidays

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