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Children as young as four can understand irony

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Anybody hoping to sneak some withering sarcasm past an unsuspecting little brat is going to be sorely disappointed. Even the littlest of children can understand irony. Turns out children really aren't so different from us after all.

Being able to understand non-literal communication is a crucial phase in a child's development, and the development of a sense of humor is one of the best indicators of that ability. Until recently, psychologists had believed that it was only around 8 to 10 years old that children became able to understand ironic statements and to use irony themselves.

But a new study pushes that date back to a much younger age - which might mean the parents of young children will want to reconsider what their child can and can't understand. Psychologist Stephanie Alexander of the University of Montreal explains why her new research has found such a startlingly different result:

"Previous studies concluded that irony wasn't understood before the age of eight or ten. However, these studies were mostly done in a laboratory setting and mostly focused on sarcasm. We examined children at home and took into consideration four types of non-literal language: hyperbole, euphemism, sarcasm and rhetorical questions."


I can't tell you how awesome it is that sarcasm is a serious area of investigation for psychologists. (And no, I'm not being sarcastic when I say that - come on, even a four year old could tell you that!) The study focused on 39 families with very young children, and both parents were asked to use these different forms of irony with their boy or girl.

Alexander and her colleagues found that children gain a full working knowledge of irony by the age of six, but certain forms of irony - hyperbole in particular - could be understood by kids as young as four. In over half the families, sarcasm was the best understood type of irony.


The relatively high understanding of hyperbole and sarcasm might have to do with when they tend to be used. The researchers discovered that those two are use most often in positive situations, while euphemisms and rhetorical questions are reserved for conflicts between parents and child. They also found that mothers favor rhetorical questions when dealing with children ironically, but fathers are fond of sarcasm. (Speaking purely from personal experience...that sounds about right.)

Alexander says she hopes parents will consider this when dealing with their young children:

"Children's understanding of complex communication is more sophisticated than we believed in the past. If parents are conscious that by age four a child can take a remark literally, especially in situations of conflict, using appropriate language can help defuse a potentially explosive situation."


[British Journal of Developmental Psychology]