One day when my daughter was 7, she came home from school, hit one of her younger brothers for grabbing one of her toys, and was promptly sent to a time-out. Frustrated, I asked, "How is it that you behave well at school all day, and yet you can't walk in the door and last five minutes without being punished?"
Hannah replied, "I forgot I'm supposed to be perfect all the time, duh!"
Caught off guard by her sarcastic remark, I laughed. (Bad choice, according to experts, who say laughing at your child's behavior means you'll see more of it.) "Sarcasm is a developing skill in 7- to 8-year-olds," says Teresa Buchanan, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Education at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge. "Often it's something they are just trying on to test what they can get away with." Learning subtle ways to be clever and challenge authority is part of growing up, but sarcasm can be hurtful. Coming from a kid, it can be an indirect way of being rude that may prompt a chuckle from time to time but can sometimes become an obnoxious trait. We've got ways to help your child distinguish between what's funny and what's funny at someone else's expense.
Kids at any age may copy a communication style they hear regularly, but if you use sarcasm frequently your child may be even more inclined to follow suit. "He may not understand the impact of his words on others, so you have to set an example," says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent. For instance, if you complain about a messy room by saying, "I see you picked up like I asked," you are modeling a tone you don't want him to imitate. Instead, be direct by saying, "I'm upset that I asked you to clean your room and you didn't." Also beware of sarcasm that you point at yourself. If you've been known to say, "Another fabulous dinner by Mom," after burning the chicken, don't be shocked if your child makes the same announcement next time.
In a culture of snarky TV characters like Bart Simpson and Squidward, it's a good idea to keep tabs on your kid's viewing habits. "You want to make sure that the positive influences outweigh the negative ones, in both number and importance," says Wayne Fleisig, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Children's Hospital of Alabama, in Birmingham. If you let your child watch The Simpsons, for example, make it clear that you won't allow her to say some of the things the characters say to one another. Point out these comments as you watch the show together, or simply don't permit the program until your child is older.
Let's say your son is playing a game with his friend Bryan and you hear him say, "Nice move, genius!" as Bryan makes a move that will lose him the game. Do you say something? "If the friend isn't bothered, wait until you get your child alone to explain why that wasn't nice," says Dr. Fleisig. This way you won't embarrass him in front of his friend -- which could shift the focus onto his embarrassment instead of the insensitivity of the comment. If Bryan is upset, step in and explain that everyone makes bad moves sometimes, and if the tables were turned your son would not like being ridiculed.
If your child comes home and mentions a sarcastic comment a friend made to him, ask how that made him feel. If it hurt his feelings, suggest some non-sarcastic things he can say next time in defense. Although you have less control than you used to over what your child is exposed to, you can still model straight talk at home, as well as help him handle himself well in your absence.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Parents magazine.