Why it's difficult for children to understand sarcasm

image When children first begin to understand that a speaker doesn’t mean what they say at face value, they may think the speaker is lying. (Shutterstock)

Sarcasm is simple! Yeah, right. Although sarcasm is widespread, found across languages and in the various ways we communicate, it is not simple. For most children, learning to understand sarcasm is challenging.

Sarcasm can be defined as “the use of remarks that clearly mean the opposite of what they say, made in order to hurt someone’s feelings or to criticize something in a humorous way.”

Difficulties with understanding sarcasm can have negative consequences such as misunderstandings and social exclusion. Psychology researchers study why sarcasm is difficult for children so we can learn more about child development — and so we can help children understand this kind of language.

Our research has found that differences in children’s experiences of sarcasm cause differences in how they can detect it.

Is the speaker lying?

As noted, when a speaker uses sarcasm, they say something different from, and often opposite to, what they really mean. Commonly, they say something that sounds positive but is meant to be negative, as in “nice going,” or “oh, great.” In saying the opposite of what they mean, the sarcastic speaker risks being misunderstood — but they do it for potential payoffs.

Sarcasm can be used to criticize while using humour, in order for the negative comment to appear less harsh. Speakers may use it to comment on the fact that things haven’t gone as expected or to strengthen social bonds.

Children may hear sarcasm from a young age, but they will probably not begin to understand it until five or six years of age. Before that age, children tend to interpret sarcasm literally: for instance, if a child hears “nice going” spoken in what adults may recognize as a sarcastic tone, the child might respond with a positive “thanks!‘

When children do begin to understand that the speaker doesn’t actually mean what they said, they may think the speaker is lying — perhaps saying "nice going” to make someone feel better — rather than criticizing sarcastically.

It usually takes until children are older – around seven to 10 years of age — for them to appreciate that speakers can use sarcasm with the intention of teasing or being funny.

Meaning what one says

Children get better at understanding sarcasm through the early school years and into adolescence. This progress is related to developmental changes in children’s language, thinking and skills related to processing, understanding and communicating about emotion.

For instance, when children understand that the sarcastic speaker doesn’t actually mean what they said simply on face value, this is related to their ability to think about the perspective of another person, and to their ability to empathize.

Children tend to improve in their ability to recognize the thoughts and emotions of others between about four and six years of age, and this is likely why they also begin to show improvement in detecting sarcasm.

One of the challenges in understanding sarcasm is that it involves conflicting ideas and goals: there is usually both a positive and a negative meaning to consider, and with sarcasm, the speaker means to be both critical and funny. The gap between what is said and what is meant creates the opportunity for sarcastic humour.

Most children develop the ability to hold two conflicting ideas or emotions in mind around seven years of age. This is probably why studies find that although children can start to detect sarcasm at age five or six, they take longer to develop appreciation for why people use sarcasm.

Knowledge about why people use sarcasm

Research shows that even when children have strong language and thinking skills, they still might not be able to detect sarcastic speech. These developmental skills are important to understanding sarcasm but they may not be sufficient. Something else is required.

One possibility is that through experience children need to build knowledge about what sarcasm is and why people use it, in order to recognize it themselves. There is correlational evidence that social experience might indeed be important to children’s capacities to detect sarcasm: some families are more sarcastic than others, and children’s sarcasm detection may be related to their parents’ use of sarcasm.

Until now, however, there hasn’t been direct evidence that differences in children’s experiences cause differences in their detection of sarcasm.

Saying what you don’t mean

With colleagues Kate Lee and David Sidhu, I tested causal effects of children’s sarcasm knowledge and experience on their detection of sarcastic speech in a new study published in the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology that is part of a special issue on the psychology of saying what you don’t mean.

Together, we randomly assigned 111 five- to six-year-old children to two groups. One group received training about sarcasm and the other, a control group, did not.

We provided sarcasm training to children with a short storybook that we read and discussed with each child. The training described what sarcasm is and why people use it, and gave examples of sarcastic and non-sarcastic speech. With the control group we simply read a non-sarcastic storybook.

We found that some of the children were able to detect sarcasm even before training, but the majority were not. For those children who weren’t able to detect sarcasm before the training, their ability to detect sarcasm improved in the training group but not in the control group.

This shows that social experience can build children’s knowledge of sarcasm and help them shift towards understanding sarcastic speech. Student illustrator Lauryn Bitterman and I converted the training storybook into a colouring book: Sydney Gets Sarcastic is free to download, as a way to spark conversations with children about sarcasm.

Sarcasm still isn’t simple, but we now have a clearer understanding of what makes it difficult.

About The Author

Penny Pexman, Professor of Psychology, University of Calgary

This article originally appeared on The Conversation

 


 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

You May Also Like

INNERSELF VOICES

How To Ensure That "Luck" Is On Your Side
How To Ensure That "Luck" Is On Your Side
by Marie T. Russell
"He's so lucky! She always wins! I'm just not lucky!" Do these statements sound familiar? Have they…
face of woman floating in water
How To Develop Courage and Move Out of Your Comfort Zone
by Peter Ruppert
Courage is not about being fearless in the face of a scary situation. It is the willingness to move…
chamomile plants in bloom
Horoscope Current Week: July 26 - August 1, 2021
by Pam Younghans
This weekly astrological journal is based on planetary influences, and offers perspectives and…
Having The Courage To Live Life and Ask For What You Need Or Want.
Having The Courage To Live Life and Ask For What You Need Or Want
by Amy Fish
You need to have the courage to live life. This includes learn­ing to ask for what you need or…
man passed out on a table with an empty bottle of alcohol with child looking on
Can LSD Cure the 'Spiritual Disease' of Alcoholism?
by Thomas Hatsis
Beginning in the late 1950s, five hospitals (in the province of Saskatchewan in Canada) offered a…
pregnant woman sitting with her hands on her belly
Essential Tips for the Journey: Release Fear and Take Care of Yourself
by Bailey Gaddis
Suppressing fear-induced emotions infuses life into them, often causing a manifestation of…
person radiating love and light from their heart out into the universe
Being A Light unto this World: Healing the World by Being Present
by William Yang
A bodhisattva brings healing into this world not out of fear of sickness and death, but out of…
full moon over a hot air balloon
Fear Unceasing or Life Abundant? Blue Moon Cycle in Aquarius
by Sarah Varcas
The period beginning with this first full moon (24 July 2021) and ending with the blue moon (22…

Marie T. Russell's Daily Inspiration

MOST READ

hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil image of children
Death Denial: Is No News Good News?
by Margaret Coberly, Ph.D., R.N.
Most people are so strongly habituated to death denial that when death appears they are caught…
Having The Courage To Live Life and Ask For What You Need Or Want.
Having The Courage To Live Life and Ask For What You Need Or Want
by Amy Fish
You need to have the courage to live life. This includes learn­ing to ask for what you need or…
Writing letters by hand is the best way to learn to read
Writing letters by hand is the best way to learn to read
by Jill Rosen, Johns Hopkins University
Handwriting helps people learn reading skills surprisingly faster and significantly better than…
spraying for mosquito 07 20
This new pesticide-free clothing prevents 100% of mosquito bites
by Laura Oleniacz, NC State
New insecticide-free, mosquito-resistant clothing is made from materials researchers have confirmed…
image of the planet Jupiter on the skyline of a rocky ocean shore
Is Jupiter a Planet of Hope or a Planet of Discontent?
by Steven Forrest and Jeffrey Wolf Green
In the American dream as it's currently dished up, we try to do two things: make money and lose…
test your creativity
Here's how to test your creativity potential
by Frederique Mazerolle, McGill University
A simple exercise of naming unrelated words and then measuring the semantic distance between them…
Digital Distraction and Depression: The 21st Century Scourges
Digital Distraction and Depression: The 21st Century Scourges
by Amit Goswami, Ph.D.
We now have ever-expanding ways to distract and consume attention through the new digital opiate of…
two children reading a book with their father
Empathy Starts Early: 5 Australian Picture Books That Celebrate Diversity
by Ping Tian, University of Sydney and Helen Caple, UNSW
Early exposure to diverse story characters, including in ethnicity, gender and ability, helps young…

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

AVAILABLE LANGUAGES

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeeliwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptroruesswsvthtrukurvi

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.