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Pranking your kids: All in good fun or cruel? 

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By Lisa Flam

Your report card came, and you got a D! Brace yourself, but you didn’t make the basketball team. And kids, well, you know that trip to Disney we've been planning? We're not going.

What a punch in the gut. But, wait ...


Oh, parents and their silly pranks.

Some moms and dads can’t wait until April Fool’s Day to say ‘gotcha’ to their kids. They play tricks, videotape the ensuing tears and panic and share the whole episode online. (Not too surprising, the videos involve lots of crying.)

The latest parent pranking viral video comes from South Dakota mom Paula Papen, who filmed her 8-year-old son’s reaction when she told him he accidentally purchased a $50,000 Ford Mustang on eBay. While Papen’s prank has drawn negative comments on YouTube about her parenting, she and her son, Kenyon, shared a laugh about it during an appearance on TODAY Thursday.

Papen, 35, doesn’t think her son is scarred for life.

“Teaching your kids to have a sense of humor is pretty important and teaching them to take a joke is a good deal, too,” she said. “So I think he’s just fine. I don’t think it’s going to cause trust issues.”

“I was like, ‘Oh that was just a funny little prank,” Kenyon said on the show, adding that he wasn’t too worried.

Some parents in 2011 famously followed late-night host Jimmy Kimmel’s instructions to let their kids open one holiday gift early, only for the little ones to discover it’s a terrible present like an onion or a battery. At Halloween, Kimmel urged parents to tell their kids they ate all of their candy and post a video of their reactions online.

Are these parental pranks all in good fun or do they go too far over the line?

The answer varies by child and what he or she can handle, one expert says.

“Each parent is the world’s leading expert on their child,” said child psychologist David Palmiter, a professor at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa. “The bottom line is that it would depend on the kid.”

For children suffering from anxiety, depression or who have anger or impulse control problems, a prank could escalate their symptoms, he said.

“Whenever a kid has those vulnerabilities, any new stress can worsen it,” Palmiter said. 

But other kids could be just fine in the face of a parental prank.

“If you had a kid who was doing very well and they enjoyed that kind of humor - they did it with their siblings or friends before - for a kid like that, it might be a bonding thing, a funny thing that’s looked back on for years to come with joy and appreciation,” Palmiter said.

Just as parents should gauge their child’s temperament before deciding to pull a prank, they should also consider how their child will react if they post a video of the prank on the Internet.

“To have their teacher or classmates or strangers in grocery store interacting with them could be a source of horror for some kids, whereas for others, it’s ‘Yay, this makes my year,” Palmiter says.

Tosha Maldonado at TODAY Moms Facebook agrees: “I don't see a problem with the prank, however I think she went too far by video taping it and posting it for the world to see. I just don't get this new obsession with embarrassing your kids online!”

Parents also shouldn’t let the joke go on too long. Any prank shouldn’t last more than a “flash,” Palmiter says.

“Teaching kids to take a joke and handle difficult situations with grace is important,” posts Melanie Wade Palmer on TODAY Moms Facebook. “This kid is obviously well-cared for and loved deeply. He'll have a great sense of humor.”

Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York.