New research findings from the Université de Montréal reveals that children as young as four are able to understand and use irony. This study, published recently in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, may impact the way parents communicate with their family.
"Previous studies concluded that irony wasn't understood before the age of eight or ten," says Stephanie Alexander, a postdoctoral student at the Université de Montréal's Department of Social and Preventive Medicine and senior author of the study. "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."
The study, which was done in collaboration with Holly Recchia from Concordia University, revealed that the children understood at least one ironic remark made by one of the parents. Although children can fully comprehend this language by age six, certain forms of irony such as hyperbole were understood at age four. In 22 of the 39 families studied, it was sarcasm that was best understood overall by the children.
Different language for different situations
Overall, hyperbole and sarcasm were most often used during positive interactions with children, while euphemisms and rhetorical questions were mostly used in situations of conflict. Also, mothers and fathers did not use irony in the same way. Mothers were more inclined to use rhetorical questions and fathers preferred sarcasm.
"Children's understanding of complex communication is more sophisticated than we believed in the past," says Alexander. "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."
This study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
- Holly E. Recchia, Nina Howe, Hildy S. Ross, Stephanie Alexander. Children's understanding and production of verbal irony in family conversations. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2010; 28 (2): 255 DOI: 10.1348/026151008X401903
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