Mr. Know-It-All

My eight-year-old is a “know-it-all.” He’s a great kid but always has an answer even if it isn’t correct. I can see adults and kids alike have negative reactions to him. Will he grow out of this or should I do something?

I don’t know whether or not your son will grow out of it on his own, but it will probably help his growth if you do talk with him about the problem, before he becomes a social outcast.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that children this age are still pretty egocentric. They don’t really realize what it’s like to be anyone else. An eight-year-old will act towards other people in ways that make him feel good, without considering the other people’s feelings. This is not necessarily “selfishness”; it’s just that the child lives in his own body and hasn’t yet developed the ability to imagine himself in other people’s shoes. So blaming your son won’t be helpful, even though educating him will.

Then you need to figure out why he’s doing this. He’s probably bright and quick-thinking, and enjoys exercising these abilities. He may enjoy getting attention from some adults for his brightness, and so he’s trying to show it off to everyone. But of course this will backfire, because while some adults will find it cute, other people, particularly kids, will find the behavior obnoxious.

When a child (or an adult) has excelled in some area, he often tends to base his self-esteem on this ability. So instead of “I’m a good person and I’m lucky to have been born smart (or athletic, or good-looking),” it becomes “I’m a good person because I’m smart (or athletic, or good-looking).” His self-esteem then becomes based on proving he has more of this characteristic than others. Naturally, this doesn’t endear the person to those he’s competing with! Sometimes, too, parents base their self-esteem on their children’s accomplishments, and the children then feel quite a bit of pressure to keep these accomplishments coming.

A child who emphasizes to everyone that he’s particularly talented in one area may feel quite insecure in other areas, and need to show off to make up for his feelings of inadequacy. Again, the problem is basing self-esteem on abilities or gifts rather than on the inner person. Children usually learn this from their parents, but it is also taken in from the school system (where children are often compared intellectually and athletically), from the peer group, and from the media.

It’s important to remember that our gifts are just our gifts, not our selves, and it’s who we are inside and what we do with these gifts that counts, not what gifts we happen to have. And it’s important to teach this to our children. This situation gives you a chance to examine the basis of your own self-esteem as well as that of your son, and to examine whether you need your children to succeed to prove your worth as a parent. Make your family one where each person is loved for the person he or she is, not for the abilities he or she possesses. Teach your son that you love him anyway, and he doesn’t need to prove his worth to you. Help him value the other aspects of himself, not just his knowledge and quick thinking.

It’s also possible that your son’s intellectual abilities need an outlet, and the school system isn’t providing him with enough challenge. If that’s the case, see whether you can find him an activity where he can expand his knowledge without antagonizing other people.

This situation also give you a chance to teach your son about empathy and kindness to others. Ask him to imagine himself in other kids’ shoes when he makes one of his “show-off” statements. “What would you feel if you were Johnny and heard this said?” He may answer something like “I’d feel dumb – but that’s because Johnny is dumb!” Then point out to him that Johnny’s abilities may be different from his own, but Johnny has to spend his whole life being Johnny. Johnny also needs to feel good about himself, and having someone show him how “dumb” he is will not help him like himself. Point out also that Johnny probably has abilities that your son does not, and that knowledge is not everything. Teach him how to affirm other kids’ strengths rather than competing with them. Make sure you do this in a gentle teaching way rather than a blaming way, affirming that you know that just as he has learned all the things he shows off about, he can also learn how to treat other people with kindness.

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