“At what age do children begin to sense the meaning of an ironic question, and to what degree can they respond appropriately to other kinds of irony?” asks a New York Times article.
A group of Canadian researchers set out to record parents and children at home as they used four types of ironic language: sarcasm, hyperbole, understatement and rhetorical questions. The study found that very young children can understand and even use ironic speech, even if they cannot describe what they have done.
According to the study, hyperbole and rhetorical questions were most common with all the children. When they were involved in a conflict, rhetorical questions and understatement were used more, while positive interactions usually involved sarcasm and hyperbole. In addition, compared with their parents, the children were more likely to use hyperbole to emphasize “grievous injustices" done them by their siblings and parents.
Dr. Recchia, an assistant professor of education at Concordia University in Montreal, said 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,” she said. “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.”