Q: My boys, ages 15, 12 and 10, love watching Family Guy.
They record it and watch it daily. My husband and I think the program is outrageous and funny because we believe the writers are sarcastic. I worry that my boys don't understand the sarcasm and are learning the wrong messages about appropriate social behavior and stereotypes. They mimic Family Guy jokes that are demeaning to a variety of minority groups when they talk with their friends. They won't listen if I try to talk about it — I come off sounding like a kill-joy. At what age can kids understand sarcasm? Could this program be impacting their beliefs?
–Am I Lois? in Winnetka, IL
A: Dear Am I Lois?,
I am impressed that as the mom of three sons, you have the courage to share with them a show in which the brilliant but angry baby, Stewie, is focused on killing his mother. ;-) Seriously, though, you have picked up on
a subtle, but important issue: While sarcasm is a low, often mean-spirited form of wit, it requires complex coordination of brain processes to be fully understood. These areas of the brain are not yet fully developed in boys your sons’ ages.
When one person makes a sarcastic comment to another person, there other signals (aside from the actual words they say) such as pausing, changing tone, or making facial expressions, that indicate the intended irony.
TV shows such as Family Guy (which is built on sarcasm), assume that the audience fully understands their meaning, so they often skimp on displaying those signals. This is one of the reasons it is so outrageous and funny to adults, but may go over kids’ heads.
When you combine your sons’ partial ability to detect and use sarcasm, their limited experience with the realities of sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination, and the natural tendency of teens to be focused primarily on themselves, you could have the volatile mix you seem worried about them displaying with their friends. Interestingly though, one scientist believes that positive discussions of sarcasm in the classroom can help kids understand the nature and origins of teasing and how, if handled wrong, it might develop into bullying. Research has also shown that young people can develop a healthy sense of irony and learn to use sarcasm appropriately by having family conversations that model these qualities in both positive and negative situations.
Perhaps the best solution to your situation is to discuss Family Guy episodes with your sons after viewing them. You can model sarcasm and irony in humorous and non-hurtful ways, and help your sons understand that not everyone will understand sarcasm and that they should never use it in ways that could hurt other individuals or groups. In this way, you can make this show a shared family experience that can help your kids grow into healthy, happy and ironic adults.