Sarcasm, Irony, Teasing, and Children

A few days ago I mentioned that I had read a piece by Simcha Fischer discussing the dangers of the overuse of sarcasm and irony.  I wanted to delve into that a bit and put my own spin on it because I think it is an important topic, at least in our household.  

Before I go further, let me just say what I think should be understood implicitly but I'll write out anyway.  I reserve the knowledge that I am certainly not an expert on anything and please take anything I write as simply my evolving thoughts on something.  I enjoy thinking and figuring things out and doing my best to find truth within the life to which I have been called.  And I reserve the right to change my mind :)  So don't go thinking I'm all like "everyone should listen to me on everything."  I'm working these things out daily, too.  Okay?  Good then.

We have made a real and conscious effort not to train up our children using sarcasm.  I never really thought about it much before having children and my favorite shows and laugh lines are often ones that dwell in the sarcastic.  But I do not think that it is healthy or good for young children to be often exposed to the sarcastic and negative humor in which many of us are steeped.

It became keenly aware to me when I jumped into that mysterious sea called motherhood that my child was looking to me to provide language skills, guidance, and the framework through which he would develop his knowledge and understanding of the world.  Very aware was I that this was how the Creator ordained things to be.  And when our little guy began to understand words, speak on his own, and imitate the words and tone I used, it was made even clearer.  It became so important to me that he learn that Mama says what she means, means what she says, and always speaks the truth.  And when I first said something in a sarcastic tone and he looked at me puzzled, it hit home.  
We know that the age of reason is around seven years old.  That doesn't just mean that around that time the child develops the ability to consciously and willfully make a choice that they know is against their conscience.  It also means that this is when they are able to use reason, understand nuance, and think more sophisticatedly.  Before this the child lacks the linguistic maturity to grasp verbal and tonal nuance.  Barring severe neglect in infancy, they  inherently trust that those who care for them mean what they say. That is good.

For the child a parent's (or any adult's) words are supposed to be honest.  "That's just great" heard by the young child means just that, regardless of the tone used.  It becomes confusing to a small child when you are saying positive words but acting like they are negative (i.e. storming about the house cleaning up after someone who left a mess and muttering that was sooo nice of you to leave this here for the maid to pick up because I just looove cleaning up after everyone.  Not that I have ever done anything like that, mind you.  Never ever.  See?  Sarcasm. A child hearing me say that would think I really meant that and if they knew it wasn't true, they learn that sometimes mom says things that aren't true.)  Used over and over again, a child can learn that it's okay to not mean what you say.  A child learns that this is the normal way to speak to others.  To say something they don't really mean to cut into someone and bonus, sometimes you can get a good laugh out of it.  As they grow and depending how often they are exposed to it, they do learn the sarcastic tone and some can even implement it very effectively.  Except we usually have a name for these children.  We call them brats.

I suppose this is another case where it is so easy for us parents to take a "do as I say, not as I do" approach and I freely admit that this is something that I need to work on and take great care with because it is certainly something I fall into easily.   Overall I think most people would admit that is not effective or loving parenting.  And in the case of sarcasm, we set up a relationship with our child where mom or dad's words are to be treated with caution.  The added risk is that the child's language skills also suffer because when they try to imitate mom or dad's example, they are reprimanded.  (I'm going to throw in right here that storytelling, fairytales, being silly, and pretend play are an entirely different realm.  Those things are all part of healthy child development that help them develop a worldview, hone skills, and develop virtue.  I would think that's commonly understood, though I think we have all heard of strict fundamentalist families or cultures past that ban any sort of fairytales or pretend play.  Sad.)

Let's be honest.  Sarcasm often hurts.  When someone is teasing us or using negative humor, it can cut deeply.  The word is actually taken from the Greek sarkasmos, meaning to "tear the flesh, gnash the teeth, or speak bitterly."  Ouch.  And despite our insistence that it is all in fun and just play, we must admit that sarcasm only works when it plays upon truth.  "I didn't really mean it," we explain.   But it wouldn't make sense unless there was that element of truth that was twisted or manipulated.  That is not the environment in which I want to raise our children and it quickly breeds cynicism and wounds that often do not ever heal.

And then we meet the close cousins to sarcasm: teasing and negative humor.  I hate to see parents and adults teasing children.  I hate seeing other children tease each other.  Nowadays much of that would be put under the umbrella of 'bullying' but yet so many parents think it's perfectly okay to use this sort of way to constantly relate to their child.  It broke my heart one day at the park to see a father constantly teasing his son not only with words but by bothering him and just being plain annoying...putting things in his face, tickling him, tripping him, etc.  The child wasn't amused and didn't appear to be enjoying it but that was the only type of interaction dad had with him the whole time they were there.  There are other people I know well whose only interaction with a parent is done via similar negative humor.  Mocking the talents or preferences of each other seems to be the only way they know to relate and surely saying I love you or really expressing themselves truly would feel strange and uncomfortable.  What is it that makes adults tease children about anything and everything? (Especially favored is the idea of teasing children about having 'girlfriends' or 'boyfriends' when they are little...ugh, don't get me started...what is up with that?)

Negative humor is dangerous.  The overuse of sarcasm, teasing, and downright mockery is poisonous to our own selves and becomes even more so when looked at through the lens of parenthood.  We run the very real risk of encouraging our children to be self-conscious and timid or fighting back and becoming cynical and sarcastic (and yes, bratty) themselves.  As Simcha points out, WE run the great risk of not only becoming cynical but of rationalizing behavior because it's just 'pretend' and not really 'intentional.'  I also think it can create a huge barrier to developing real intimate relationships with other people 

But you're going to raise uptight young adults who will be so dull and boring without the social skills needed to have normal relationships and they'll be so weird and unfun and nobody will like them...  

No. What we will do (or at least, what we will try to do) is slowly help our children understand the complexities and nuance of tone and of language at the appropriate age.  They will learn how to play with our language without it being a source of pain or cutting humor for others.  Our hope is that they will learn how to have NORMAL relationships where they are free to express ideas and feelings and activities without the underlying fear that their information shared will not someday be used against them.  It's interesting to note here that one of the positive generalizations about homeschoolers is that they are able to speak to adults with more ease and are able to look an adult in the eye and have a real conversation.  I think there is merit to that and I think some of it at least is that homeschooled children are more sheltered from the teasing and sarcasm that permeates the social interactions in a normal school.  

In our home, we will help our children learn nuanced language and sarcasm by using it only in reference to things that are not personally hurtful and we will try to use it sparingly and only after the age of reason.  We will try to expose them to things that are truly funny rather than entertainment that just takes the cheap and easy route of sarcasm and negative humor.  My husband and I will do our best to use this time of formation to teach them that we mean what we say and that they can trust that mom or dad will never use their weaknesses or any of their qualities to score a comic point.  I think that will bear great fruit in future years.

You know what happens to a lot of those shows I've watched over the years that are steeped in sarcasm and negative humor?  They're funny for a while but then they get old and stale.  I don't feel after those shows that I've been made better or that I've been uplifted.  Which is okay.  I don't necessarily think everything we watch or listen to or expose ourselves to must be sarcasm free.  But what I don't want is our HOME to become old and stale and a bastion of negative humor and personal criticism disguised as play.  I don't want every joke to be a play on distorting the truth.  I hope that we can have a more sophisticated and truly funny home than that.  I pray that in our home we will be able to have authentic relationship without the cover or vitriol of routine sarcasm and negative humor and that we will be given the graces necessary to make that happen.

So those are my thoughts.  Perhaps I am overthinking things?  I'd love to hear yours!  


  1. Very well thought out & beautifully stated. A gentle but important reminder for us all. Your sons are blessed to have you both as parents. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

  2. I agree with Grandma Lin. I am certainly guilty of using sarcasm at times with my girls - not intentionally, but just because it is sometimes what comes out naturally, and I regret it every time. I've been working on this own area of my life - not only when it comes to relating to children, but in relating to everyone - because often sarcasm is just a waste of time.

    One thing my girls and I talk about is only saying things that are "true, necessary and kind". And when you look into Scripture there are so many warnings and instructions on being careful of how we use our tongue. In James 1:26 it says, "If anyone thinks he is religous, yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he decieves himself and his religion is worthless." - that's pretty straight forward (and harsh).

    1. I'm glad I'm not just being uptight...I know I do overthink things sometimes! I appreciate the reminder about how often Scripture talks about the importance of our words. There are so many references! Our words reflect what is in our heart and that is so often repeated. I've also been pondering a lot the last few years of "let your yes mean yes and your no mean no. Anything else is from the evil one" that Jesus says in Matthew. Meaning what we say without duplicity... It's something need to work on more, I know.

  3. Great article Mary, something I certainly need to reflect upon and be more aware of. Thank you for posting!

  4. You've said so beautifully what I've felt in my heart for some time. My 10 year old daughter has helped me to see what you are saying. Anytime I'm sarcastic she is quick to say, "Mom, that's sarcasm." She understands what sarcasm is and does not tolerate it. She is a very honest child and so I'm not surprised that an honest child would be quick to point out sarcasm. Love leaves no room for sarcasm. It is something I have felt I need to work on, even more so because of this post. I find that I'm more sarcastic when I'm over tired, not feeling well, having a bad day etc. Sarcasm=negativity, at least when I'm prone to use it. God Bless you for the reminder to keep up my own efforts in eradicating sarcasm.

    1. This just made my day, thank you for commenting! It's something I definitely need to work on as well!


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