At What Age Can Kids Understand Pranks?
Published: Mar. 18, 2024
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At What Age Can Kids Understand Pranks?

April Fools Day is approaching and it’s the season of pranks. Pranks can be fun and a form of connection for many; but the type of pranks and the AGE of the child do matter when it comes to thinking of pranks. 

If you’re not familiar, last year parents on TikTok were setting up cameras to crack eggs with their children and instead of cracking the egg into a bowl; the parent would crack it on the child’s head recording their reaction. Most reactions were: cries, shock, and even retaliation with a punch or slap to their parent. There was laughter; but the laughter was ONE-SIDED from the parent. The children were very young and didn’t understand what was happening or that this was in fact a prank.

Pranks like this can be funny. Especially if done by an adult to another adult. I have seen some married couples prank each other and it’s funny! But, the adult has better cognitive processing skills to understand that it’s a prank—small children do not.

The concept of pranks and who we can do pranks to, what’s allowed, consent, and limits is not something a toddler can understand leaving them with tears. All a young child will understand in the situation of the egg cracking is that their parent hit them on their head with an egg and laughed.

So at What Age Can We Even Consider Pranks?

Under 4 years of age: I would hold off any resemblance of a prank. They just do not have the developmental ability to understand the concept.

After 4 or 5; a child may begin to lie or express their feelings with words rather than tantrums (or less of them). They understand the concept of not telling the truth, lies, or deviating from what is “true” or the norm. They can also start to develop “theory of mind” Theory of mind is an ability to understand that someone else has a different perspective than your own and we’re not all “the same.” Having theory of mind is also helpful in a child understanding a prank. Theory of mind also has to do with expectation and the ability to understand norms. For example: Your child is used to squeezing toothpaste out of the container but part of your prank you blocked the opening. They’re trying and trying and can’t get it out. Their theory of mind understands the norm and the eventual joke is confusion when they can’t get it out. You see them struggle and you tell them it was a joke. And they laugh. A child after 5 CAN potentially understand this harmless prank; but it also depends on the kid and their individual development. Some kids may not have “theory of mind” and some may be more sensitive so it’s really important to understand your child. 

The development to understand the concept of a prank takes time which means after age 12 is when a child developmentally can have the reasoning to understand reality and concepts of a prank (yes 12!).

If you’re thinking of a prank; remember the age and temperament of your child. If your child is under 4, I wouldn’t even consider a prank as it’s likely going to go straight over their head. 

Here are three pranks that I think are appropriate for kids 4+. Remember, you do NOT have to do pranks and the older the child the better the understanding:  

  1. Frozen Fun: After your kiddos go down for the night before April 1, pour a bowl with their favorite cereal — including milk and spoon. Then place the bowl in the freezer. When you serve it up in the morning-warm the spoon so it’s not ice cold. When they try to eat it; the spoon won’t move. You can laugh, tell them it was a joke and serve them the real thing. 
  2. Where did the toothpaste go: Unscrew the cap from their toothpaste and put some plastic wrap over it. When they try to squeeze the bottle; nothing will come out. They can try and try and then you can show them what really happened. 
  3. The toothpaste swapperoo: Yea, I know. Why so many toothpaste pranks? Instead of putting toothpaste on a brush and handing it to them, put something that looks like it: icing, cream cheese, or something edible. When they go to brush their eat they will get a surprise. 

And Remember the Cardinal Rules of Pranks: 

  1. You should know the recipient of the prank WELL. If your child’s temperament won’t tolerate a prank don’t do it. I DO NOT like pranks being done to me, but my husband does enjoy pranks—an example of unique feelings.
  2. A prank should not cause physical harm or potential physical harm. Think:  moving a chair from someone as they sit
  3. Do not fall prey to something called “punching down.” Punching down is used in comedy too where you make a group that has less power than you look foolish or embarrass them. This is why pranks on peers can be seen as more appropriate as there is mutual development and equal “power” in the relationship. A child looks up to you and if you prank them and they don’t understand; it can feel like a loss of trust or embarrassment. 
  4. Pranks should not alter someone’s body without their consent. PLEASE don’t cut their hair while they’re sleeping. 
  5. Don’t humiliate them. The goal of a prank should not be to humiliate someone so if your family is a prank-loving family; keep it in the confines of your home and focus on things that aren’t humiliating.  
  6. Apologize if you did a prank and it missed the mark: You should know they will be receptive to it and if for some reason they’re not: you need to connect and reassure them if you missed the mark and thought something would be benign and it wasn’t. 

Remember that lightness and jokes can exist in relationships without physical harm or embarrassment. 

This blog was written by Pediatric Associates Dr. Mona Amin from the Fort Lauderdale South office.