Why Sarcasm is No Laughing Matter for Kids

“Very Funny!” Why Sarcasm is No Laughing Matter for Kids

by Signe Whitson, LSW, Contributor to Family & Parenting on Allthingshealing.com

Editor’s Note from Shelly Phillips: I wasn’t quite sure how to talk to my husband about how sarcasm affects young people and then I read this great article on the topic. Whew! Now I’ll just have him read this and then we can discuss how we can support each other and our family by removing the sarcasm from our daily lives.

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.


Theresa T.
Theresa T5 years ago

Interesting viewpoint-thanks for sharing!

Rose Becke5 years ago


Silas Garrett
Silas Garrett5 years ago

Sarcasm tends to be a rather ineffective way to deal with adults, as well, honestly.

Christopher S.
Christopher S.6 years ago

In my experience sarcasm is never benign no matter how much people assure you that it is, and its etymology is most telling:

Etymology: French sarcasme, from Late Latin sarcasmos, from Greek
sarkasmos, from sarkasmos, from sarkazein to tear flesh like dogs,
bite the lips in rage, speak bitterly, sneer, from sark-, sarx flesh;
akin to Avestan thwarǝs - to cut.

Berny P.
berny p6 years ago

Yet at the same time it's essential in our society to understand sarcasm.

Aimee Polekoff
Aimee Polekoff6 years ago

I'm an adult, and I don't like sarcasm either. Sometimes I use it, but I try not to and I never do it with malicious intent.

Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago

Sarcasm does not work on children or Conservatives.

Veronica C.
Veronica C6 years ago

Kids should be exposed to sarcasm because they can't be sheltered from it very long. Whether we like it or not, we live in a world where we have to be able to take it and dish it out. I have some neighbor kids who would have a field day with a kid who couldn't handle their sarcasm. Kids have to be toughened up to survive other kids!

Shelly Peterson
Shelly Peterson6 years ago

I have aand enjoy using sarcastic humor with my adult friends, that understand it and appreciate it for what it actually is..they are informed and understand, that I am coming from "many" different points that are actually all connected...probably over 80% of all adults, that I have met in my lifetime, not only "would not get it"..it would be.."abusive" of me to say, as I know and care about them ..respect as the indiviguals, that they are...I do not look "down my nose" at others, I recognise us for who we are as indiviguals...I am speaking as adults to adults...and when it comes to children..NO!..they are still trying to understand their parents, all people in their surroundings and asking..."WHY"!?!..I , don't understand?"..and so are the adults in their lives, without skills to understand and communicate..including, just being able to say the truth,"I don't know..but maybe together , WE can learn the truth"...instead, sarcasim is used in a toxic way to protect the adult's insecure ego......bullying is bulling, and sarcasim is used like a weapon, and is toxic in its use as such.....or....can add life, witt and laughter, to those of us that are responsable to use it as such..with other adults that are on the same level of understanding the truth and looking at all sides!(not that I haven't opened my mouth, before engaging my brain, with other adults, that "don't have enough information to appreciate it for what I ment..and believe me I back peddled so fast, as I saw the brai

Beth Weatherbee
Beth Weatherbee6 years ago

Thank you for sharing! It's a hard habit to break though, sarcasm that is.