Bad Santa

So, as I recently Tweeted about, comedian Jimmy Kimmel has been asking viewers to play pranks on their kids and record the results.  For Halloween, he encouraged people to tell their kids they ate all the Halloween candy.  The results are fairly predictable – the kids are shocked, disbelieving, angry, tearful.  The Huffington Post called it “hilarious,” and said “Yes, the trick’s a little mean, but, you have to admit, it’s pretty funny.”

OK, I admit I did laugh a few times. It was a guilty laugh, though.

Cats never look this guilty.

Turns out it was so wildly successful, Kimmel did a follow-up:  Give your kids a terrible present.  And on the surface, how could you not get some laughs out of parents wrapping up an onion, a half-eaten sandwich, and an old banana?

Unfortunately, when I stop to think, this pair of “pranks”  presents two pretty big problems for me.  I’ll explain one today, and save the second problem for a follow-up.

1) Children’s understanding of humor is very tightly linked to their developmental stage.  Although infants smile and one-year-olds will go into peals of giggles over peek-a-boo, it’s not  until between ages 2 and 3 that children start to play tricks, but even that is of a very simple kind – putting a shoe on before a sock, for example, or giving you a fork when you ask for a spoon. Very small toddlers, under age 2, can tell the difference between someone doing something intentionally or by accident, a fundamental building block of humor, but kids can’t really get their heads around double meanings (like puns) until about age 6-7, and they don’t start to get a handle on sarcasm until age 8 or 9 (pdf).  Older kids (middle school aged) start to deal with difficult concepts like aggression and sexuality in their jokes.

Piaget suggested that we are able to recognize that others have different intentions, purposes, and points of view at some point in the concrete operational stage, which goes from about ages 7-11.  But this is a time of rapid growth and change, and this ability is still developing as kids move into the formal operational stage with its greater understanding of abstraction.  As Robert Kegan points out in his constructive-developmental theory (expounded on in “The Evolving Self“), our understanding of cognitive development suggests that the ability to perspective-take, or to guess accurately at what another person might be thinking and feeling, doesn’t really fully develop until the interpersonal stage, usually at adolescence.

Younger children (Piaget’s concrete operational children, which Kegan describes as in the “imperial” stage), are mostly concerned with how other people can meet their needs.  Older children in the interpersonal stage can submerge their needs and desires to meet the needs and desires of others – so they can go along with a joke at their expense, even if they feel a little hurt.  They can also do cognitive tricks, like “I don’t find that funny, but I understand how you would.”  It takes no small measure of sophistication to manage such a stunt.

What does this have to do with Jimmy Kimmel and Christmas presents?  Well, a lot of the kids in the video are young – very young, some as small as perhaps 3 or 4 years old.  All of them are clearly younger than age 12 or so.  So looking at them from a developmental perspective, the problem becomes clear:  Most, if not all of these kids are far too young to “get the joke.” If you showed them this video, they would probably laugh, at least the ones older than about age 5 or so.  But younger kids are laughing at the incongruity, not at the “prank.”  Those 7-11 year olds might think it’s hilarious, and might be able to cognitively explain why it would be wrong to give someone a half-eaten sandwich when you promised them a gift (“because it’s mean and they might cry”), but can’t understand how their parents can know this too, and still do it to them.

As far as they can tell, their parents have done something terribly thoughtless, which they’re presenting in a totally serious fashion, and they expect their kids to be grateful for it.  The “double meaning” behind their ironic straight faces is completely opaque to most of these children; hence their extreme reactions of hurt, disappointment, and rage.  They feel betrayed.

Parents let kids down – it’s a fact of life.  No parent is perfect.  But deliberately making your child feel betrayed?  And then putting it on TV for the LOLs?  Not that funny.

In parenting, many things are tempting, but should probably be avoided.

Come back tomorrow for Part II:  Now with gender policing!

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