I’m scared for my daughter. She’s eight. Her cheeks are round with toddler-like softness, and she still sleeps inside a circle of two dozen stuffed animals and dolls every night. Yet youth and tenderness seem to be leaving her. I want to rescue her heart like I would a drowning mouse in a pool, scoop my hands under that vulnerable organ, lift it into open air, and find it a safe landing place in the sun for healing.
How do I do that, though? Is any dry land left in this culture, so sunk in sarcasm and apathy?
Everyone wants to defend sarcasm and use it in the most clever and cutting of ways. It’s cool. It’s also what everyone else is doing. As the Arizona Family Institute reports, it saturates most of our current culture, taking over the tone of most sitcoms, cartoons, sports casting, political debate, social media banter, even music itself. Yet I will fight it until I am the last warm-blooded mammal breathing on this earth – totally uncool, florid and impassioned.
I condemn sarcasm for three reasons. First, by definition, sarcasm conveys contempt and scorn. As Richard Chin points out in a recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine, the Greek root for it, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs. It’s an insult used to expose other people’s failures. Those who spend their time trading derisive witticisms are focusing on each other’s underbellies and practicing how to expose and ridicule others’ weaknesses. I’d rather my daughter exercise her ability to notice strengths, to appreciate them and to enhance them.
Secondly, sarcasm is the skill of saying one thing while implying another. If we are all focused on saying what we don’t mean, we are going to lose the ability to express what we do mean. Articulating one’s core values is a tough job. As a college professor in communications, I see firsthand how hard adults have to work to speak and write their own ideas and feelings clearly. Some of my students sweat over four or more drafts of a 500-word essay, just to get a single point of focus right. Speaking can be even harder for them. Many break down in nervous laughter or even tears when standing up to deliver a two-minute oral presentation. We live in a culture where genuine communication is challenging for most and terrifying or even impossible for many.
The worst consequence of sarcasm is smug laziness. I’ve been in school cafeterias when someone accidentally drops a tray full of dishes, and more than half the people in the room laugh, clap, and call out sarcastic jibes. Then they go back to eating. I pray my daughter isn’t one of them. Instead, I want her getting out of her chair, hustling over to the mess and cleaning it up, side by side with whoever else is crouched down on the floor.
Grace is mostly a kind, helpful, hard working girl, but just this year I’ve noticed a trend towards the opposite. A few weekends ago, instead of talking about the colors of the leaves in the trees, the strength of her daddy’s arms, and the fresh fall scent of the air, she remarked about how fun it is to do something new like cutting wood for winter. This week, instead of expressing gratitude for her school’s new bike program or her band instrument, she huffed away with the words “boring.” I worry that her powers of appreciation and imagination are failing to thrive, sickened by the attitudes and tones of our general modern culture.
Mikah, my two year old, has not yet been infected. The kid loves life with unabashed exuberance. He will pick up a day old crust of bread from the floor, pop it in his mouth, and croon, “Delicious!” When I come home after a run, he will wrap his arms around my sweaty neck, kiss my unwashed face three times, and sing, “Beautiful Mommy!” Just last night, after their baths, he took Grace’s hands in his and said, “Dance and sing with Mikah!” I felt so grateful, watching the two of them jump on the bed holding hands singing impromptu tunes, all while laughing, so pure in their delight, so free of shadows.
How can I preserve a toddler’s zest in all my growing children? Taking a baseball bat to all screen devices and banishing their jaded peers doesn’t seem possible or even effective. Sarcasm, like pollution, creeps in through just about any kind of filter. Talking about it directly also doesn’t guarantee protection. Too many people – in the media and in their lives – hail it as the savviest way of sliding through life. An earnest plea coming from a mom stands little chance against snide jabs from a pack of teens or witticisms from pop stars.
The most repeated solution among experts is to embody what I seek to see. So I am committed more than ever to approach life myself with unbridled passion. I can’t expect my kids to dance at parties, to sing without self-consciousness, to tackle hard school projects and household chores without complaining, and to complement others rather than criticize them if I do not do all these activities myself.
Along with passion, another antidote to sarcasm is empathy. A report from the Arizona Family Institute explains:
“When we use empathy with our children rather than sarcasm, it activates the frontal lobe of the brain where higher thinking and problem solving take place…Parents cannot truly show empathy while being sarcastic simply because empathy is sincere while sarcasm is not.”
Sarcasm blocks our ability to empathize because it avoids and deflects feelings rather than uses those feelings as a way to connect to another human being or animal. As Tyler Huchabee reports in Relevant Magazine, “When things probe open wounds in our hearts, we chase them out with sarcasm. It’s how we keep ourselves from admitting we’re not as tough as we wish to be.”
I’ve watched Gracie tear up at certain moments – maybe she drops a toy that breaks on our tile floor or finds herself encountering a homework assignment that’s not as easy as she’s used to – and her dad tosses out a witticism that makes light of whatever loss she is suffering, and she cracks a smile and rallies. Of course, sarcasm is a blessing for how it can lighten a grave moment and circumvent direct discomfort. The problem is that laughing at one’s losses and moving forward are not the only way to deal with pain and sometimes are not the best way. I don’t want my daughter believing she always has to be tough and move along despite her feelings. Sometimes a person needs to open fully to what hurts, to take in pain with no shield, and to grow from an experience of honest vulnerability. Much more importantly, our culture needs to support children to feel and grow in this authentic way rather than towards callous indifference.
For my part, I will model passion and genuine communication. I will also cultivate activities that nurture tenderness, compassion and imagination in my kids, such as climbing trees and resting in their branches, baking muffins and drawing get-well cards for friends and family, building rockets…and whatever else I can dream up! Still, I am limited – as an individual, as a mom, and as one often dismissed for her earnestness. The fight for tenderness and authenticity has to come from a wider world.