Pexman’s puppet experiments have revealed a fascinating subtlety about children’s emerging ironic sensibilities. She found that although even those as young as six years understand ironic criticism, they do not seem to “get” ironic praise. For example, if a young child misses a soccer goal, he has no trouble knowing that “Hey, nice shot” is insincere and mean-spirited. But if he scores a difficult shot and a teammate yells, “Hey, lousy shot, man,” that is a lot harder to process. It does not compute automatically. In other words, children appreciate hurtful irony but not cheerful irony.
Why would that be? Pexman believes it is because most people have a general expectation that others will be nice to them, not mean; ironic language calls attention to the unexpected meanness. Which seems to suggest that kids develop a sardonic sense of life’s travails very early on. Well, that’s just great.
Note: This story was originally printed with the title, "A Sense of Irony".