The next time you roll your eyes and say something non-literal to your toddler, like "Thanks a lot for cleaning that up," you might want to watch his response. He just might show you he understands by picking up those toys.
Until now, laboratory studies conducted by child development experts have found that children understand the often tricky nuances of irony (or in this example, sarcasm) between the ages of six and 10. But new research done in family settings suggests that flicker of recognition can show up as early as four.
"Just before children can show an explicit understanding of this language in the lab, they are having these experiences in their family that could provide the foundation for this more explicit understanding," says researcher Holly Recchia, a developmental psychologist who is about to join the faculty of education at Concordia University.
Dr. Recchia and her colleagues at the University of Montreal followed the interactions of 39 families, watching for parents or older siblings using four kinds of ironic, or non-literal, language: sarcasm, hyperbole, understatement and rhetorical questions. Their findings appear in the current issue of the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.
Then they coded the responses of the children, ages four and six, looking for both an understanding that the ironic comment was not merely a mistake or a lie and a response that showed they understood the intention behind the irony, or, as Dr. Recchia puts it, "If my mom is being ironic, why is she being ironic? Is she teasing me or making a point?"
The children were least likely to understand hyperbole and understatement, but in some cases did understand the more obvious irony in sarcastic comments and rhetorical questions. Kids failed to respond to sarcasm about 70 per cent of the time. But when they did respond, abut 40 per cent of the responses were appropriate. The findings were similar with rhetorical questions.
Dr. Recchia says her findings don't contradict earlier studies about children understanding irony after age six.
"But the question remains, where do these explicit understandings come from," she says. "We're making the argument that the foundations of these more explicit understandings may be laid .. earlier ... in conversations that include irony."
Dr. Recchia says an example of a rhetorical use of irony is, "How many times do I have to ask you to stop?" The appropriate response would be to stop, not to say, "you need to tell me 100 times."
"Children have a lot to learn being exposed to this form of language and working out what it all means," she says.
A recent example of how this evolves appeared in a profile of actor Steve Carell in the New Yorker. In front of a reporter, his nine-year-old daughter, Annie, asked him, "Daddy, how much do you love me?"
Mr. Carell answered, "I love you so much, you're the most important thing to me." Then he shook his head, as if to erase the compliment. The reporter writes that "she gasped and laughed, then said with mock outrage, 'Daddy! That's terrible! How can you say such a thing?' Carell, instantly sunny, said, 'Oh, honey, you know, of course, that you're the most wonderful child.' After a beat, he shook his head again, starting the next round of the game."
Parents undoubtedly play a role in exposing their children to irony and helping them understand its function in conversation. What's more, especially when irony is used in lighthearted, positive ways, it might actually tighten bonds.
"One interesting question is how irony might be a useful strategy in the parenting tool box."
No word yet on whether toddlers can make any more sense of Alanis Morissette's lyrics in Ironic than adults can.