Parents should ban sarcasm for themselves and their kids. It’s so easy to sling a fast one in the face of some jackass or tool or would be verbal bully.
“Try breathing more, your brain’s oxygen starved. Never mind, close your mouth, you’re letting the bugs out.”
When I was in middle school, we all tried to think up the funniest put-downs; priding ourselves in our brilliance and humanity. We claimed that we tried to never aim them at anyone undeserving, or, if we were honest, violent. At home, older siblings were often quicker at the sling, but not in front of our parents or teachers or adults, in general. My parents wouldn’t allow disrespectful remarks.
I had an aunt and uncle who never stopped slinging sarcasm at everyone, including their kids. For years I laughed and hoped that some day I’d be as cosmopolitan and clever as they were. They were, after all, from New York City and we lived three hundred miles up in the climate disaster area known as, “The Snow Belt”. Syracuse, New York had over a hundred and fifty inches of snow the last winter—from September to May. I lived there, where it stayed cold enough to prevent the snow melting. It sort of recomposed; darkened with street drippings and air pollutants.
My aunt and uncle could not believe how funny it was that anyone they knew lived in such a trash heap. Watching the local news one time, had them in near hysterics. Finally, my aunt said to the news anchor on TV. “Just say it, dear; nothing happened here today.” My uncle. “No reports on anyone escaping today.”
My parents smiled and sipped on their drinks, maybe hoping to escape back to New York City some day?
I thought and thought and, a day later came up with. “This town puts the eek back in bleak.”
I think I got a chuckle from them.
I started to wonder, though, if I didn’t like where I lived. And, when I visited my aunt and uncle alone one time as a fifteen-year-old, it hit me that they didn’t actually live in New York City. They lived in one of the blandest morasses of Long Island. I noted that their ongoing caustic quips seemed less brilliant when aimed at me and at their children. I could handle it because I could get away. My two cousins looked psychologically bruised.
There were a couple of professors in college who mocked at will. We were supposed to hunch our shoulders and laugh; prove we could take it. My friends and I decided those lively classes were better than the droning-on lectures that put everyone but the manic note takers to sleep. Then I noticed the few really inspired teachers weren’t sarcastic at all. Their humor wasn’t knee-slapping or bitter. It was insightful. It added to the subject.
“Digby Baltzell, the famous sociologist who was born in Philadelphia, spent a lifetime investigating the meaning of Boston’s Puritan influence on American culture. He taught at Philadelphia’s Quaker-founded University of Pennsylvania his whole career. He died in Boston.”
When my wife and I got together, we had a pact: no sarcasm. Absurd, occasional clowning, great. Dark statements about humanity; great. Teasing, great, as long as it was always fundamentally respectful. We saw what the cheap-shot put-downs did to so many of our friends’ relationships; it wasn’t pretty. Why spoil my endlessly high opinion of my wife?
Having children meant the no sarcasm pact was simply extended. A lot can be achieved with practice and we saw how much easier it was to ask for decent—actually, really good—behavior from our kids. The trust was there so when, oops, a wisecrack shot out of one of our mouths occasionally, my kids knew it was violating an important boundary.
So, I shudder when I see hip-cool parents on TV shows or in movies—the parents who connect with adolescent humor—make sarcastic remarks to their kids. It seems to be especially effective with teenagers in these shows. In reality, all kids need respect and psychological space. If I remember right, most of the sarcasm flying around in my teen years was a cry for help. Adults who don’t give their kids respect, don’t get it back—and I believe in demanding respect from kids.
I’d advise using humor, even harsh humor, in extreme situations. Your son comes home bedraggled and sad because he didn’t play soccer well, once again. He looks beaten down. You’ve told him before a few times that he should follow through with things. This time you say. “Quit. Don’t you know when to quit? We would have lost the American Revolution if George Washington didn’t retreat and retreat and retreat.” My son knew I meant it; he could quit the team and find another sport another time. I wasn’t using reverse psychology. My wife and I never did that.
He grumbled a laugh and said, no, he’d stick it out.
Growing up, I loved the classic sardonic humor of twentieth-century novelists, J.P. Donleavy, J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut. I loved the absurdity of Seinfeld. Any comic routine done by Tracey Ullman is amazing. Comedian Jim Jefferies is one of my favorites, now. I really appreciate people who apply cleverly honed sarcasm. There are a time and a place for it. I still have to hope those people never aimed their sarcasm at their kids.
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