I recently came across an article that asked teachers whether it is ok to use sarcasm in the classroom. Some argued that it is an essential part of their communication style, while others said it had no place. The article didn’t come down on an answer one way or another, but there is an answer, and it’s no.
I recognize that this is likely going to be one of the most ~controversial~ ClubX Blog posts I ever write. And I admit that I’ve been guilty of using sarcasm with youth in the past. But hang with me, keep an open mind, and think through this alongside me.
Before we start, what is sarcasm? According to Merriam-Webster,
UM YIKES. “Designed to cut or give pain?” That definitely doesn’t sound like something we should do. But yet people will argue passionately that it is essential. Here are some of the things I’ve heard and read to justify the use of sarcasm, and here’s why they don’t hold water.
“It’s how I connect with youth, especially teens!”
A sense of humor is absolutely an important tool for building relationships. We’ve all seen how laughter can build quick bonds and change the energy of a room. But that humor doesn’t have to be sarcastic. Humor should never come at the expense of another person.
Sarcasm is particularly harmful for young children. They are learning how to interpret language and social cues, and may not have the ability yet to understand when something is a joke and when it isn’t. Nicknames and offhanded remarks that we don’t see a problem with can be internalized and bring a deep sense of shame. Even teens are still learning these nuances and boundaries, possibly more so if English isn’t their first language.
“They know I’m kidding. It’s fine.”
It may be true that you have youth who you know well and who know you well, and who will totally be in on the joke. But what if there is a youth in the room who isn’t as familiar with you? And who doesn’t hear positive messages at home? They could easily misinterpret your sarcastic ribbing of another youth as serious, or your words may be eerily similar to an insult they’ve heard from another adult in their life, and just like *that* you’ve created an emotionally unsafe environment for them. The momentary laugh isn’t worth the risk.
The article I referenced earlier included this example: “I might say something like: ‘This test is super easy. My dog took it last night and did it blindfolded and passed with flying colors, so you should have no problems’.” This may seem like a harmless comment since it isn’t directed at an individual, but what if there’s a kid who finds the test difficult, or doesn’t pass? What’s the internal message they’ve received? “I’m dumber than a dog.” That’s not ok.
“I use it all the time, it’s just how I talk.”
There are lots of things you probably say when you are with your friends or colleagues that you don’t say when you are working with youth. Some language and topics are adults-only, and sarcasm is one of them. This also means you should be careful to not let youth overhear you using it with your coworkers. It takes self-discipline, but it is possible.
“They should learn how to handle sarcasm from an adult who cares, so that they are ready for it in the real world.”
As youth development professionals, it is our job to model good character and positive social-emotional skills for the youth we work with. Rather than model sarcasm, why wouldn’t we want to be an example of how to speak with empathy, kindness, and warm-hearted humor? Plus, we all know how kids can pick something up and spiral out of control with it. Your use of sarcasm signals to youth that it is acceptable in your Club, and they will take it and RUN roughshod over any and all boundaries. Youth are going to hear sarcasm in lots of other places, including and especially in their entertainment, so let afterschool be different.
Now that I’ve convinced you that sarcasm isn’t the way, what should we do instead? How can we build supportive relationships? Our partner the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality spells out three practices that foster positive relationships with youth and support young people in learning new skills:
- Ask lots of great questions that are open-ended, relevant, and challenging, balancing them with comments and dialogue and making sure that all youth have input.
- Listen to youth and show that you are listening by engaging in youth-led conversation, remembering context and details, identifying their feelings and empathizing.
- Encourage youth with specific comments, avoiding judgement, and encouraging them to describe their plans, feelings, and goals.
There is room for warm and positive humor in all of these. Want to dig deeper? Boys & Girls Club staff can access a free Ask-Listen-Encourage online training in Spillett Leadership University. (Note: You may need to log into SLU through MyBGCA.net before clicking the link, or search for “Ask Listen Encourage” to bring it up.)
Using sarcasm is a hard habit to break. But it is absolutely worth it. Our foremost goal is creating a safe, positive environment for the young people in our programs, and the words we use are a key part of it. By modeling kindness, encouragement, and humor that unites and lifts everyone up, we will help create #GreatFutures for youth.