Children 'can understand irony from age of four'
Parents have been warned to choose their words carefully after research indicated that children as young as four can understand irony.
While previous studies has suggested that children may not appreciate sarcasm until the age of 10, the latest work shows that many develop a sophisticated knowledge of non-literal language before primary school.
The report also found that many young children are confident users of irony – in news that may not come as a shock to parents who have been the butt of withering asides from their angel-faced offspring.
As part of the study, researchers went into the homes of 39 families to listen to how parents engaged with their children.
They monitored the use and understanding of four types of non-literal language: hyperbole, euphemism, sarcasm and rhetorical questions.
All the children who took park understood at least one ironic remark made by one of the parents.
While most were au fait with the use of non-literal expressions by the age of six, certain forms of irony such as hyperbole were understood at age four.
The children who used irony themselves were most confident with hyperbole and rhetorical questions, the study found.
Stephanie Alexander, the University of Montreal postdoctoral student who led the research, said: "Previous studies concluded that irony wasn't understood before the age of eight or ten.
"However, these studies were mostly done in a laboratory setting and mostly focused on sarcasm. We examined children at home.”
The study also found that parents use irony differently when talking to their children. While mothers are more inclined to use rhetorical questions, fathers prefer sarcasm.
The researchers suggested that parents could use some forms of irony – particularly hyperbole and sarcasm – as a way of calming conflicts with their young children.
But they advised parents to choose their words carefully, given the different ages at which children develop an ear for dual meanings.
Stephanie Alexander said: "Children's understanding of complex communication is more sophisticated than we believed in the past. Using appropriate language can help defuse a potentially explosive situation.”
The study, which was done in collaboration with Holly Recchia from Concordia University, has been published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.