Watch Your Language: Young Children Unprepared for 'Snark' Attack

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Little kids are just so ... literal. Credit: Getty Images

A Republican walks into a bar in Idaho with a frog on his head. Bartender says, "Where'd you get that?" The frog responds, "This is Idaho. They're everywhere."

Tap. Tap. Is this thing on?

Wow. Tough room. Note to self: Quit playing elementary schools.

Good idea. A new study suggests kids younger than 10 might just hurt their necks from trying to see the sarcastic and ironic comments flying over their heads. Not really. That was just the kind of metaphorical statement many young children wouldn't "get."

The New York Times reports Canadian researchers observed young children in a laboratory and concluded that kids have virtually no grasp of irony until they are 6. Even after that, their grasp is tenuous.

It's not until they're 10 or 11, researchers found, that they stop taking everything so dang literally.

Still, many children grow to old age being severely irony-impaired. Left untreated, they spend their final days telling people in the nursing home that, by cracky, that young Stephen Colbert fella makes a lot of sense.

(Psst, Colbert only pretends to be a conservative commentator. No one would be that over the top. It's all a joke. Like Glenn Beck.)

Researchers say their conclusions are important to keep in mind when talking to young children and clueless adults who are going to take things literally and will be probably end up confused or perturbed.

Even when the irony-impaired try to dabble in irony and sarcasm themselves, researchers found, they really don't understand what they're doing. Asked to explain irony, they might look like they just got clocked upside the head with a two-by-four.

"You really see that they respond appropriately to this language in conversation," Holly E. Recchia, the lead author of the report, tells The Times. "That's not the same as saying they can explain their understanding explicitly."

Recchia is an assistant professor of education at Concordia University in Montreal, and, The Times reports, she and her colleagues found mothers tended to use irony and sarcasm more negatively than fathers.

"It may be that mothers take on roles as teachers or managers," Recchia tells The Times. "If moms are more engaged in conflict management, then it could be that rhetorical questions are more effective than sarcasm."

As children start getting snarky, they are more like to use sarcasm ("Gee, thanks a lot") rather than understatement ("I'm just a bit angry with you right now").

Of course, you can be ironic without being mean.

"Parents tend to view ironic language negatively, but it's not always negative or nasty," Recchia tells the newspaper. "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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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.