We have all been guilty of uttering sarcastic responses from time to time
and most likely feel a twinge of remorse as soon as we hear the words come out of our mouths. But how do sarcastic responses directed toward our children affect them?
You are late for work, the dog hasn't been fed or taken out for his morning ritual and is clawing at the door, your daughter can't find her left shoe and now the telephone is ringing...as your 4 yr. old, holding her right shoe innocently looks up at you and asks, "Mommy, what should I do?" you suddenly realize the sarcastic response you are thinking in your mind you actually just heard out loud in your voice, "Guess you'll just have to go barefoot!"
Now you have compounded the problem because your daughter is in tears because she doesn't want to go to daycare without shoes. You immediately realize you need to back up, apologize and explain that you didn't mean she should really go barefoot, that you were being sarcastic.
Two things: First, children take things literally because their brains are not developed yet to discern information they receive so your explanation most likely will only add to their confusion. What they will take in is that you are sorry and didn't mean it. The second is to know that the rare occurrence when there is the occasional slip of the tongue will not send your child on to a path of misery and pain for the rest of their lives.
However, with that being said, if uttering sarcastic responses to your children is common place you are risking the likelihood that they will not learn to communicate in a positive way. Many years ago I worked with a family whose 5 yr. old was not doing well after only a few weeks in kindergarten. The teacher had contacted the parents stating their son was refusing to do what she was asking the class to do. Whether she asked the class to get out their crayons or put their jackets on to go outside for playtime, their son more often than not ignored her requests until she adamantly made a personal direct request of him.
She was frustrated. After the parents spoke with their son and explained that he needed to do what his teacher asked him to do they had hoped the problem would be resolved. It wasn't. Several weeks later I was contacted and asked to meet with the teacher, the parents and the little boy.
We began with a game of role-playing where I played the part of the teacher and his mom played his part. It was all very humorous and light-hearted. As I (as the teacher) asked the mom (as the student) to please take out her reading book, her son interrupted and said, "Mom, you didn't ask if it was for real or pretend!"
I was a little confused by his statement, both parents were smiling as if to say to their son, "You are so silly!", but the teacher reacted as if she had just found the answer to eternal youth! "That's what he says to me all of the time when I ask the class to do something! He doesn't respond until I tell him that this is for real!", she exclaimed.
Everyone became very serious as the core of the problem became evident. As it turned out his Dad had a longstanding habit of issuing sarcastic remarks. In order to lessen her son's confusion in reaction to his Dad's sarcasm, the Mom would interject "Dad doesn't mean it for real, he is only pretending!"
Apparently this type of exchange carried over to the majority of conversations between him and his father and so it had become a habit for him to respond to his father by asking, "For real or pretend?" Neither parent had realized the possible negative consequences of what they saw as a harmless funny little game.