Don’t try: kids don’t recognize sarcasm


“Let’s see if you can splash a little more!” He said to his daughter when he saw that the moment of the bath had turned the room into a pond. Little Olivia, with an incredulous smile, began to shake her arms happily with more intensity, enjoying the spectacle, before her father’s decomposed face.

The irony uses the language wanting to imply something that does not correspond literally with what is said. We all use it on a regular basis. Sarcasm is a particular use of irony aimed at derision. It is a scathing and cruel irony with which someone or something is offended or mistreated.

Communication is a psycholinguistic process in which we decode the message of our interlocutor so that its meaning is understood. It implies the participation of different linguistic skills, but also sociocognitive and communicative, where aspects of cognitive development (for example, language comprehension skills) and also of the social world intervene.

Children may have difficulty understanding irony and sarcasm when they are unable to “decipher” the other person’s communicative intention, which in this case requires an interpretation of their communicative meaning. It also happens to some adults. It is also a characteristic feature of the autism spectrum, which is characterized by that literalism incompatible with irony.

The studies suggest that understand the irony involves a late skills arising on the 5 or 6 years old. It can be later, and it depends on the complexity of the ironic-sarcastic message and the clues that the person can turn to to interpret it correctly.

Depends on age and context

There are contexts in which a child, depending on their age, can more easily decipher a sarcastic comment. For example, when at school one says to another when he misses a shot on goal, “You are a phenomenon playing soccer”, the child who is the object of this false praise may understand that his lack of ability is actually being held against him.

But other situations are more ambiguous. The true intention of the sender can go unnoticed, for example, when a child who thunders with his voice to his teacher, he jokingly says: “Let’s see if you can speak louder, they do not listen to you well in China!” In this type of situation, the child must perceive different types of information to understand that his teacher is actually requesting the opposite of what he says literally.

There are elements of non-verbal behavior that help to understand the sarcastic message, and that a child does not yet perceive: the tone of the sender, his gestural language and other elements of the context itself.

In the understanding of irony, other types of capacities also intervene that come from the so-called theory of mind, that is, the ability to understand the behavior of the other, their intention and emotional state. It involves correctly interpreting what the other has in his head and, therefore, what his communicative intention is. Many children are in the process of developing this ability and confuse their own knowledge with the knowledge of other people (for example, in stories where they are asked to anticipate the response of a girl who goes to look for her doll stored in a place where previously he had deposited it, without knowing – we did – that another child had moved it). Most fail in their prediction when they have not developed the mental skills.

Can your understanding be trained?

Sarcasm is a common form of social language, but it can be challenging for children to understand. Lee, Sidhu, and Pexman (2021) investigated whether practice through coaching could improve children’s ability to understand sarcasm. Children aged 5 and 6 participated. Some received training and others acted as controls.

The children watched some puppet shows. After each story, the children were asked about the narrator’s ideas, intentions, and sense of humor. The findings of this study demonstrated that different aspects of understanding sarcasm could be enhanced through training.

Clues to recognize it

For the recognition of ironic sarcasm, we adults usually rely mainly on two indicators: the context in which the statement is made and the intonation of the speaker. Several experts found that children were able to recognize sarcasm when the speaker used a sarcastic intonation, but failed without that hint of intonation, even when the context suggested a non-literal interpretation.

In other experiments it is confirmed that children depend much more on intonation and are more oblivious to the sarcasm implicit in the context.

Author Bios: Mireia Orgilés is University Professor. Expert in Child Psychological Treatment and Jose Pedro Espada is Professor of Psychology both at Miguel Hernández University