Do Children Understand Sarcasm?

Do children understand sarcasm that we adults sometimes use? We'll give you the answer in the following article.
Do Children Understand Sarcasm?
Mara Amor López

Written and verified by the psychologist Mara Amor López.

Last update: 31 May, 2023

We adults tend to use sarcasm in our daily lives. Sometimes we use it as a way of laughing at a specific situation and sometimes we use it against a person. We’ve come to integrate this way of speaking to such a degree that we don’t realize that there are children who don’t understand sarcasm. In fact, some adults don’t understand it either and end up taking it the wrong way.

Depending on the context in which they’re used, sarcastic words can be hurtful to the people who receive them. Children under 7 years of age don’t understand sarcasm as such and, therefore, don’t manage to use it correctly. Therefore, it’s important that we’re careful with these types of phrases to avoid the emotional consequences they may have on little ones. They may even stop trusting adults, given the incongruence of their words.

Young children interpret messages literally

A child understands the language of adults literally. That is, if an adult tells them “great!” or “perfect!” sarcastically when they’ve done something wrong, they’re likely to be confused. As a result, they won’t understand why they’re affirming them when what they’ve done is negative.

Children begin to understand sarcasm, though not literally, around age 5 or 6. At these ages, they realize that what’s conveyed to them in words is contrary to what’s expressed through gestures. Between the ages of 7 and 10, they begin to understand that sarcasm is a form of mockery or criticism.

A woman whispering in a young girl's ear.
Adults use context, gestures, and intonation to make sense of the message, but young children aren’t yet mature enough to use these tools.

Sarcasm can be learned

Children can learn to understand sarcasm through experience. They need to build a knowledge base about what it is and why people use it. That way, they’ll be able to understand it and know how to use it. Therefore, sarcasm can be learned in children so that they don’t get confused and feel bad.

A study published by the American Psychological Association (APA) and conducted by psychology specialists on 100 children between the ages of 3 and 6 has concluded the following:

  • The development of sarcasm comprehension in children occurs late. Young children aren’t able to understand two contrary ideas until they’re 7 years old.
  • Even children who have great thinking and language development skills aren’t able to detect sarcasm. Therefore, these skills are necessary, but not sufficient to understand these types of phrases.

Recommendations to help children understand sarcasm

As we’ve seen, young children aren’t able to understand irony. Neither are children with an autism spectrum disorder. For this reason, it’s important to be cautious when using sarcasm with them. At the same time, parents can teach their children skills to improve their understanding of language. So, it’s important to keep the following in mind:

  • That they’re able to understand the concept of what’s contrary.
  • Teach them that words said with irony can hurt other people. Therefore, they should be careful when saying them.
  • Help them learn to recognize when someone says something sarcastically or with bad intentions.
  • Talk to them about the idea of lying and white lies.
  • Explain to them exactly what sarcasm is. To do this, you can use situations from daily life. For example, if something doesn’t smell good and we say “that smells good”, we should accompany it with a disgusted or unpleasant face so that the children can understand what we mean.
A baby with his hands in the air, showing that he doesn't understand.
By using sarcasm with young children, we can hurt their feelings and transmit to them a communication model that’s based on mockery and disguising what we really mean.

The consequences of using sarcasm with children

Using sarcastic words with children without them being mature enough to understand them can be harmful. Here are some of the consequences:

  • It hurts their feelings. Usually, the message we convey to them is negative and, as they don’t understand it, it can affect them.
  • Children won’t trust us and may even distance themselves, as they won’t understand their parents’ contradictions.
  • It can generate insecurity, as our face and gestures don’t match what we say. In addition, the child may misinterpret the message.
  • It will make us lose empathy as we feel superior to them. This isn’t a good way to start a conversation, especially if we want children to learn.

Teaching children to understand sarcasm

In order for children to understand sarcasm, they have to have acquired appropriate thinking and language skills. Therefore, we have to be cautious when using irony with children, because if they don’t understand it, we can hurt them emotionally. At the same time, our duty as parents is to teach them to identify the sarcastic phrases that are used on a daily basis.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.