I grew up in a very funny family—not the kind of funny that sends you to therapy, but the kind that is its own form of therapy. My Irish relatives knew how to lighten even the hardest days with well-timed ironic humor. Some of my funniest memories are at family funerals.
Though I love making people laugh, I’ve had to learn that certain ironic humor doesn’t belong on the lips of the Christ-follower, especially the Christian parent.
Ironic humor involves saying the opposite of what you mean, either in word or in tone. In its positive form, wit, it can be used to diffuse tension, put others at ease, or even pay a compliment. (Think of congratulating someone by remarking with a smile, “It is her burden in life to excel at everything she tries.”)
Those of us for whom no Instagram filter can impart glamor can adopt the hashtag #IWokeUpLikeThis (thanks, Beyonce) with ironic glee. Wit, whether situational or self-deprecating, draws us to the family, friends, party guests, comedians, and public speakers we find funniest.
But ironic humor can also hurt. Sarcasm is wounding wit and differs from ironic wit in one key way: It always has a victim. By definition, sarcasm comes at the expense of someone else. The term itself comes from a Greek word meaning “tear the flesh.” Its subtle shreds actually make it more irresistible to the chronically ironic.
Understanding ironic humor requires a cognitive ability not everyone has. Ironic humor tends to reinforce our sense of intellectual superiority while simultaneously confusing others in the conversation.
Undeniably passive-aggressive, sarcasm cloaks contempt in cleverness. Why insult someone directly in plain speech when I can do so with stealth and artistry? Its subtle shaming leaves the recipient humiliated both by its message and its technique. This form of verbal bullying comes like a velvet-gloved sucker punch to the face, delivered with a wink.
For parents, it’s particularly problematic. Because sarcasm requires a level of language interpretation that children under the age of eight generally have not yet developed, they do not possess the verbal or cognitive skill to defend against it.
Responding to a spilled cup of milk with a sarcastic “Thank you for being so helpful” will confuse the child who can’t follow the subtlety and wound the child who can.
In my experience, I was more tempted to use sarcasm with my small kids when other adults were present. On some level, I knew that my child wouldn’t get the joke, but that the other adults would. Leveraging a child’s incomprehension for adult amusement may seem fairly harmless in the moment, but children are always watching and learning. As they enter adolescence, parents begin to reap the harvest of sarcastic seeds we have planted. If we play our kids for laughs, they will eventually return the favor.
Sarcasm permeates our culture; it’s the bread and butter of every sitcom and standup comic. Our children will hear it at the lunch table and on the little league team. What if our homes were places where they didn’t?
The Book of Proverbs spills significant ink on the sins of the tongue. In particular, Proverbs 18:21 reminds the Christian parent, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Those who crave the fruit of the Spirit can have no taste for sarcasm.
So must we inhabit humorless homes? Absolutely not. Ironic wit, free of sarcasm, can bring lightness even on our hardest or dullest days. Who doesn’t love a person who can laugh at themselves and help us laugh in the midst of difficulty, sorrow, or monotony? Such humor is God’s gift to help us temper the bitter with the sweet. It is wholesome, “helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).
When we trade sarcasm for victimless humor, we set aside our wrath. Want to put an end to sarcastic comments? Start at the root. Ask the Spirit to show you the source of your underlying anger. He has dealt gently with me in this, and I’m thankful for the redeemed gift of humor that heals instead of harms.
Jen Wilkin is a wife, mom and Bible teacher with a passion to see women become committed followers of Christ. She is the author of None Like Him.
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