Dads pride themselves on being funny guys. But there is a wide gulf between a dad who can tell a dad joke that’ll make his kid’s eyes roll right out of their heads and a dad who is a teasing sarcastic jerk. The punny dad is hilarious. The snarky dad is undermining his own authority and his child’s sense of security and self-worth. He’s also modeling the behavior of bullies.
“Humor can be very misplaced,” says clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer. “Cognitively we’re dealing with something that takes abstract thought to really comprehend and we’re expecting kids to get it. Kids don’t get it.“
The reason children don’t get jokes even though they often pretend to is that, even into their teens, they lack the ability to think abstractly. When a parent teases a child with a sarcastic comment, they are asking the child to both understand the world, other peoples’ perspectives, and alternative realities. A dad who jokingly tells a misbehaving kid they’re going to “sell them to the gypsies,” for instance, is asking a kid to understand several high-level concepts: the racist gypsy stereotype, why it’s hilariously unlikely there would be a gypsy camp anywhere near a suburban supermarket parking lot and the fact that selling children is illegal and that their parent would never ever do it. That’s a lot to process.
How to Be a Funny Dad Without Teasing Your Kids
- Understand that kids can’t think abstractly enough to get sarcasm which relies on high-level reasoning.
- Children learn socially and when exposed to snark and sarcasm they develop inappropriate social behaviors.
- Jokes should never put people down or sound threatening.
- Teasing is sometimes used in lieu of good discipline. Having a good discipline plan helps.
- Put-downs and snark are easy. Kids respect the intelligence of parents willing to be smart with puns and jokes.
When a kid can’t work through the cognitive maze to understand the “joke,” it can be pretty damn distressing. But beyond that short term, stressful destabilization, there are long term consequences.
“What’s going to happen with your child if they’re surrounded by this is that they’re going to have inappropriate social development,” Mayer says. “You’re going to have a broken child, socially.”
That may result in a kid who becomes a teaser or a bully themselves. That’s because kids are constantly watching their parents. Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also a mainstay of early behaviors. When all children see is a parent who leans on snark, sarcasm, and teasing, they internalize the idea that such rhetoric is normal and socially relatable to others.
“There should be red flags that come up in your mind that should guide you when you’re going to make any statement or joke,” Mayer says. “Don’t put down someone and don’t threaten. Threatening is not a good parental technique anyway.”
Mayer also points out that when a parent leans on adult humor, they diminish their parental power. That power comes from being a trustworthy, respectable person that a child can rely on. Children don’t actually care if dad is funny. They just care that dad is stable.
“Don’t abdicate your power,” Mayer urges. “Continue to be a powerful respected person in your child’s life, not Bozo the clown.”
Mayer notes that many times the snark is unleashed when a parent falls prey to their own frustrations over a kid’s behavior. The fix for this is to have a discipline plan in place and to use it consistently and dispassionately. If that plan is about giving a child natural consequences, fine. If it’s about time-outs or talking, that’s okay too. The important part is that it is consistent and given out without anger.
Finally, Mayer notes that teasing and snark reflect poorly on a dad’s intelligence. “Teasing and put downs are easy ways to be funny. That’s why we gravitate towards them. It’s the easy thing to say,” he opines. “It doesn’t take much intellect to say the snarky thing.”