This can be a complicated subject, but on the whole we think your spouse is right. Parents need to be very careful about the way they use sarcasm. By definition, sarcasm is caustic – that’s to say, it’s burning and corrosive. It achieves its effect by exposing inconsistencies that can sometimes be extremely painful to the “subject” of the joke. As with anything caustic, you need to use it sparingly and judiciously to avoid destructive results.
As your spouse has correctly pointed out, the risk is especially high when you’re dealing with teenagers. We’d suggest that there are two major problems related to teens and parental sarcasm.
First, sarcasm can hurt feelings, and words uttered in a “humorous moment” can continue to cause pain later. Parents who communicate by issuing a steady flow of sarcasm can expect casualties. We’re not necessarily calling for an all-out moratorium on playful sarcasm, but there need to be boundaries. Limit it. Give your children the right to tell you when it bothers them. If they ask you to stop it, respect their wishes. Don’t be too proud to apologize, even if it seems like no big deal to you. As you find out where the boundaries are, get into the habit of living within them.
The second pitfall is more subtle. Sarcasm can mask sensitive or vulnerable feelings. Here, too, the result may be pain and conflict. Imagine a father watching his lovely sixteen-year-old daughter come downstairs. He might say, “Honey, you look beautiful tonight.” On the other hand, if he tends to be sarcastic, he might quip, “Man, you were such an ugly little girl! What happened?” Same underlying point, but one is obviously much more complimentary than the other.
One last point. Parents need to remember that you reap what you sow. When this happens, you may find that you don’t like it. You may call your “style” sarcastic, but when the tables are turned and it comes back at you from your teen, you’ll probably call it “disrespectful” behavior. It never hurts to say what you mean and mean what you say.
In the end, you need to remember that sarcasm should only be used with tremendous sensitivity. After all, a teen’s world is tough enough. He probably gets plenty of barbs and arrows at school or on the playing field. Home should be a refuge from that kind of treatment – a safe haven from hurt and a gas station for filling up on high-octane edification.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss this subject with a member of our staff, feel free to get in touch with Focus on the Family’s Counseling department. Our trained counselors would be more than happy to speak with you over the phone.
Tips for Parenting Teens