The sarcastic child

How to teach kids the difference between assertiveness and being rude

You ask your 11-year-old to watch his little sister while you make supper, and he rolls his eyes and says: “Did I give birth to her? No? Well, why should I have to take care of her?”

Not the response you were hoping for, and it’s not just his reluctance to help out that bothers you, but the sarcastic way he answered you. Nothing aggravates parents like the caustic backtalk many preteens seem to be so good at.

Here’s the bad news and the good news: It might actually be normal. “Being sarcastic is developmentally appropriate for preteens,” says Melanie Barwick, a Toronto child psychologist. “This is a way of flexing their verbal muscles and testing different ways of expressing themselves.” And if it seems a little worse than in previous generations, Barwick says there’s a reason for that: “This is what kids see in the media. They live in a racy, rude world where much of what is considered humour is sarcastic and taunting.”

The sarcastic child is trying to be cool and funny. But when the comments are made in response to a reasonable request from parents, or used to upset a sibling or another child, it’s time to step in. “If you ignore it, you’re giving the child the idea that you approve,” Barwick explains. “You need to teach children the difference between being assertive and being lippy — and there is a difference.”

Sarcasm can be quite subtle (the rolled eyes, arched eyebrows or muffled snicker can say a lot) and still hurtful, especially to younger siblings. Eight-year-old Tyler Douglas* of Burnaby, BC, complains to his mom, Vicki, about his 11-year-old sister’s sarcastic responses: “He says, ‘Whenever I tell her something cool, she says, ‘Oh, that’s amaaaaazing,’ and it really means that she thinks it’s boring.’”

Strategies

Barwick suggests these strategies for damping down the sarcastic tendencies:

• Be a good role model yourself. Many parents have a sarcastic streak themselves, and preteens are quick to imitate that. So hold back on those biting comments.

• Don’t lash back when your child has been sarcastic to you.

• Bring the problem up when your child’s feeling relaxed and calm — and stay calm yourself. You could say something like “I didn’t think the way you talked to your brother was very nice — I think it hurt his feelings” or “It bothered me when you rolled your eyes at me when I asked you to help.” You may not get much of a response, but you’ve pointed out the issue.

• Talk to him about the kind of response that would allow him to be assertive without being sarcastic. You can point out that if he responds the way you’d like, he’s more likely to gain your co-operation.

• Keep the conversations private. Don’t discuss this in front of your child’s friends and siblings.

You’re not likely to completely eradicate sarcasm. You can, though, help your child learn to use it more appropriately. And, yes, you need him to help out with his sister right now — even though he didn’t give birth to her.

*Names changed by request.

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