The almost-6-year-old and his 8-year-old sister cleaned their plates of the last of the fish filets, pasta and broccoli they’d been served when he fixed those giant blue saucers for eyes on me and smiled that impish grin. His hands came up from his sides and were visible from across the table.
“Dad, can we have some ‘dessert’?” he asked, accenting the request with air quotes.
The question frustrated me, because at some point, and for some reason, my children have come to view dessert as a birthright. Like it’s just one of the courses at meal time, as par for the course as a protein. My Beautiful Wife and I have worked hard to disavow them of this notion, especially after springing for multiple fillings for one kid at the dentist.
Mostly, though, this struck me as odd since I’m pretty sure he really wanted some dessert — so why the air quotes? Plus I couldn’t remember him ever using air quotes before.
“Did you just use air quotes?” I asked. His sister giggled.
“Where did you guys learn air quotes?” I asked her.
“Phineas and Ferb,” she informed me. I should have guessed. For elementary school kids, the humor on that show is undeniably subversive, appealing to their growing independence, their broadening awareness of the sublime and ridiculous all around them. Hell, I usually laugh out loud at least once when I watch an episode with them.
The 8-year-old explained how Phineas and Ferb used air quotes in a recent episode. She and her brother had started doing the same.
Only, as you probably know by now, they weren’t using them right. My kids have plenty of time to learn about sarcasm and irony, and utilize them in innocently cruel ways against me, their mother and little brother. But to watch my son say the following was just too good to let pass:
“I’d really like a piece of my Valentine’s Day ‘candy,’ ” he said, air quotes brandished with a flourish.
So I tried to explain to them how air quotes are used.
“Bud, you’re not doing that right,” I said, wading into what was sure to be a less-than-elegant explanation. “People use air quotes to, well, quote something directly that someone else said. Mostly they use them to make a sarcastic point, or to signal a funny euphemism. Or, uh, for satire. Actually, they’re not always used in nice ways.”
(Some, however, credit Steve Martin with inventing them, so that makes them infinitely better than they were when I started writing this post.)
It was clear they weren’t following me. I soldiered on.
“Like when you guys play in the basement and just totally trash the place. Toys everywhere, nothing put away, the room a complete mess. I might come upstairs and say to you, ‘Hey guys, thanks a bunch for your ‘help’ cleaning up the basement, I really appreciate it.’ I don’t really mean thanks for your help, because in fact you didn’t help me at all, you just created more work for me and I’m really frustrated. See, I’m being sarcastic. I probably shouldn’t be that way so much, come to think of it.”
“Yeah,” the almost-6-year-old said. “I really don’t ‘like’ it when you say stuff like that.”
The 8-year-old giggled again.
“No, buddy, you’re still not using them right,” I said. “You actually don’t like it when I’m sarcastic with you like that, right? So you wouldn’t want to use air quotes with the word ‘like.’ Make sense?”
“Dad, can we have some ‘dessert’ or not?”
“Sure bud, go ahead, I’m sure your dentist is gonna ‘love’ that at your next cleaning.”
And with that, I had gone and used them wrong — our dentist will in fact love this at their next cleaning.