Isn’t it ironic?

A recent study, published in The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, examined how children recognize and use ironic language (defined as sarcasm, hyperbole, understatement and rhetorical questions) in natural household conversations.

Previous research, performed in a laboratory setting, indicated that children had no comprehension of irony before age 6, and little before age 11. This study looked at normal conversation in the home, and determined that even very young children understand and can use ironic speech, even if they can’t describe what they’ve done to a researcher.

Here’s the lead author of the report, Dr. Holly E. Recchia, an assistant professor of education at Concordia University in Montreal, quoted in a NY Times summary of the study:

You really see that they respond appropriately to this language in conversation. That’s not the same as saying they can explain their understanding explicitly.

The researchers identified a few patterns in the use of ironic speech. From the Times summary:

Although it is unclear why, compared with fathers and children, mothers used ironic language more in negative interactions than in positive ones, and rhetorical questions more frequently than any other form.

With all the children, hyperbole and rhetorical questions were most common. When the children were involved in a conflict, rhetorical questions and understatement were used more, while positive interactions usually involved sarcasm and hyperbole. Unlike their younger brothers and sisters, older siblings used sarcasm (“Thanks a lot — now you wrecked my collection”) more often than understatement (“I’m just a tiny bit angry with you right now”).
Compared with their parents, the children were more likely to use hyperbole, typically to emphasize grievous injustices done them by their siblings and parents: “You never give me an allowance, even when I’m good.” Older children used more irony than their younger siblings, and while younger ones were less likely to understand the meaning and function of the remarks, the differences were not large.

We should note that while we didn’t participate in this study, our families would fit squarely into the norm of those who did!

So what’s the relevance of research into children’s use of irony? Dr. Recchia, the study’s author, says that even though children’s understanding of irony was limited, it could still be useful:

“Parents tend to view ironic language negatively, but it’s not always negative or nasty. Sometimes it’s quite playful. It may be that humor and irony can help to defuse situations that might otherwise cause conflict. It may be an effective tool.”

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One Response to “Isn’t it ironic?”

  1. Can we be serious here for a minute? « Thoughts from Be Amazing Learning Says:

    […] week, we posted about kids’ recognition and use of ironic language. Today, it’s the serious […]

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