Very early in my son’s life, we noticed him hitting milestones that most would consider “academic” a lot faster than he was able to reach physical milestones. Because I believe in allowing children to lean into their strengths instead of feeling down about what they can’t do, much of what we taught him and spent time doing with him centered around encouraging him to build his impressive vocabulary, reading skills, and math skills, which built his confidence, and trying not to push too hard at things he was behind on–we allowed him to take his time with fine motor skills such as holding a crayon, and accepted that potty training would take a long time when we got there.
It was important to me as the parent to make sure my son didn’t feel stupid for what he couldn’t do, but also that he didn’t feel too “smart” in areas where he excelled. What I mean by that is that I feared a child who feels smart for being able to read at ages 2 and 3 may feel that everything should come easily to their “smart” brain, and will get frustrated, and possibly give up, when presented with challenges later in life.
(That concern was solidified by studies like these ones: ParentingScience.com/praise-and-intelligence.html)
That’s why both my husband and I tried to be mindful of how we praised his progress. When he learned something new, we used comments like “Wow, you worked so hard to learn that!” or “Do you feel proud of yourself?” in hopes that he would internalize motivation to work hard, and to get his self esteem from himself, instead of waiting for compliments from others.
It was all well-intentioned.
He started at a new preschool just a few months ago, after a gap of a couple of years since his last school experience. There are a lot of reasons he didn’t spend more time in preschool, which I won’t go into here (and I’ve written a bit about some of them before), but we decided now was the time to make sure he has a chance to start developing social skills. (It was not a lightly-made decision, because yes, I know there is a pandemic going on. Knowing how much of a hinderance it would be for him to not step foot in school again until Kindergarten, we made the decision to find a preschool where this situation is handled as carefully as possible, and the teachers are vaccinated.)
When I brought him to his new school for the first time to meet the teachers and fellow students, we happened to arrive during story time. My boy is very interested in books, and was excited to see an open book in the teacher’s hand. Very innocently, he looked over her shoulder and began reading the book out loud. I know he wasn’t trying to show off in that moment; it’s just a regular activity to him at home. I also know his intentions were innocent by how startled he was by the teachers’ reactions. He didn’t expect to see them cooing and praising his reading ability.
Not wanting to taint that happy first experience in the new group of people he was nervous to meet, I decided to let that one go, and just let my glowing child feel good about himself for a day.
Then he started school, and I was not able to be with him throughout the day. I don’t know exactly what happened in school, but I do know that often, at pickup, teachers had huge praises to tell me about how smart he is, and how he would read books to his classmates, and sometimes help them with their lessons.
At first, I thought, “This is wonderful! He’s making friends by being helpful!”
…Until my son came home one day and spent the afternoon talking about how “The other kids can’t even read!” in a less-than-loving tone. Oh no.
Knowing it was time to nip that superiority attitude in the bud, I gently reminded him that not all kids learn at the same pace, and that the other kids will learn when they’re ready. (“Besides, I’m sure some of the other kids stay dry all night–something you’ll learn to do when you’re ready!”)
We had several talks like this, but the new knowledge that he is “smart” was just too exciting for my little boy to resist. I don’t think he had even considered that label for himself until he had other kids his own age to compare himself to, and until teachers started telling him that he’s smart.
Eventually, he was willing to admit one struggle he’s been having in school:
The other kids don’t play with him.
Hoping that this struggle was only because he’s the new kid in class, my husband and I started trying to suggest ways to make friends in school. Surely, he would figure it out and/or they would warm up to him eventually, right?
But then the “I’m the smartest person in school!” comments started.
Suddenly, it became clear: Our child has become the class brag.
This explains his social difficulty. What I remember from my school years is that the smartest kids were often the meanest kids, and now that he thinks of himself as smart, he’s developed that attitude that pushes other kids away.
Until recently, my son has always been quiet and shy, sometimes even completely nonverbal when other kids were around. Naturally, I worried about his social development as an only child. The way he let other kids at the park push him around made me worry about how he wasn’t asserting himself, and I thought he needed a confidence boost. I never thought I’d have the opposite worry: He’s now had too much of a confidence boost, and now we need to figure out how to get that ego in check before he spends his entire school career isolating himself with his gloating.
Of all the worries I had going into the parenting journey, I somehow never imagined that figuring out how to avoid raising a brag would be a concern.
Faced with this new problem, I did what any modern parent does when they realize there’s a problem to fix:
I searched Google.
What I found in articles about young children and bragging was a lot of consistent advice, especially on two main points:
- It may be a phase, all kids brag, don’t worry, the other kids aren’t cringing about it because they’re bragging, too…
- When bragging is a problem, it may be a confidence issue. Children who brag are apparently looking to be validated by the adults in their lives, and when not receiving enough attention, try to get it by bragging.
(Upon reading this a few times, my mind went back to the earlier well-intentioned act of not telling our son that he’s smart.)
I don’t know what to do with this information.
To the first point, I hope it’s true and he’ll outgrow this.
The second point does make sense in theory, but I do have suspicions that he’s getting plenty of teacher praise in school, and I’m skeptical about trying more praise at home, possibly elevating his sense of self-importance further. It just seems counterproductive, that it might encourage the behavior.
I don’t know yet how to handle this going forward. I’m stepping lightly in this new phase.