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Children Understand Irony Much Sooner Than Believed, Study Finds

Lindy Tolbert |
September 21, 2010 | 10:36 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Young children may be wiser than previously thought. (Creative Commons)
Young children may be wiser than previously thought. (Creative Commons)

The world of psychology was thrown for a loop again this week by a study claiming children are capable of understanding irony by the age of four, disproving  previous age estimates.

Conducted by Université de Montréal, the study examined the interactions between parents and children in 39 families. 

"These studies were mostly done in a laboratory setting and mostly focused on sarcasm,” said Stephanie Alexander, the doctoral student who conducted the research.  

Four types of communication were considered in the study, namely rhetorical questions, sarcasm, hyperbole, and euphemisms.  

What researchers discovered is that even though children are fully fluent in irony by age six, they begin to understand simple forms of hyperbole as young as age four. 

In the past, researchers believed that irony was not understood by children until closer to the ages eight or ten.

Hyperbole, a figure of speech that employs exaggeration, was most frequently employed, as well as sarcasm, by many of the parents during genial exchanges.

Rhetorical questions and euphemisms took main stage, however, when it came to situations requiring discipline or correction.

Rhetorical questions are questions which are designed to be asked without a response in order to persuade the listener, and euphemisms are words designed to make offensive concepts less offensive.

Gender also determined how each parent dealt with the child, with fathers electing to implement sarcasm, as opposed to mothers, who relied on euphemisms to convey their point.

Ultimately, researchers questioning the families found that children understood sarcasm the most IN 22 of the 39 families tested.

"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.”

To reach reporter Lindy Tolbert, click here.



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