Smart Answers to Parents’ Toughest Questions

How to Tame a Kid Who Knows Everything

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Got a big-personality child who thinks he knows more than anyone else in the family? Learn what to do from our panel of experts: Matthew Lorber, MD, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City; Susan Stiffelman, marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, and author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm, and Connected; and Victor Fornari, MD, Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, NY, and Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, NY.

Don’t start a debate with a know-it-all youngster. There are better ways to encourage a child to listen to what others have to say.

There is clearly no shortage of know-it-all people. So is this smarty-pants attitude something kids acquire on their own—or do parents unwittingly play a role in its development?

“Parents who are very critical, and those who expect kids to do things the way they want them to be done, are modeling know-it-all behavior for their children. We have to remember that kids hear us when we’re on the phone, when we’re speaking to other people, and talking to our kids themselves. Parents who model pro-social behavior will teach their child how to behave in that fashion.”—Dr. Fornari

“A lot of parents model know-it-all-ness. They argue in front of their kids because they want their opinions to be held in high esteem. They need to show children how to treat people whose ideas are different from their own.”—Ms. Stiffelman

“Many kids see their parents exhibit the same behavior. They may watch their parents insist they’re right until others just back down. Parents should create an environment where a kid can hear Mom or Dad say, ‘I hadn’t thought about that. I think you’re right.’ Children are like sponges; they soak up everything. They’re very smart.”—Dr. Lorber

So does a know-it-all phase go away on its own—or does someone have to step in to curtail it?

“Some kids will act like know-it-alls until someone intervenes. So parents need to step back and make sure they are not encouraging a behavior at home that may put their child at a disadvantage elsewhere. Instead, help your child develop empathy and read the social cues of others.”—Ms. Stiffelman

“Social media, including YouTube, has glorified celebrities who are abrasive and in-your-face, and who insist they know everything. Kids want to be like these celebrities, and so they mimic these behaviors. Steer your kids toward people who model appropriate behavior—in the entertainment world, in athletics, and elsewhere.” –Dr. Lorber

Say you have two or three kids, and one, perhaps the eldest, constantly corrects the others—about how to play a game, kick a ball, or feed a puppy. What can a parent say or do encourage that child to respect others’ opinions?

“You don’t have to have the last word. If your child is going to believe something that’s not true, it’s OK—you can let it go. If you keep arguing, he’s going to argue back. That can prolong things and make it worse.—Dr. Lorber

“Don’t just say, ‘Don’t be a know-it-all.’ Validate and acknowledge first. Anytime you shame or scold a child, particularly when the child is demonstrating what he may think is his greatest strength, it’s really demoralizing. So instead, you might say, ‘I love that you’ve learned so much about birds, honey. It’s incredible how much you know about wingspan, flight patterns, and the migration of the species. Your little brother may like to add what he knows.’ A child will be open only if he feels validated and heard. —Ms. Stiffelman

“Kids do best with praise. Even when we think kids are being too assertive, we can praise them by saying, ‘That’s terrific, but in addition to that being correct, these are things that are also correct.’ In addition, parents can remind kids that friends and siblings may not like being corrected. Parents also can model speaking respectfully to others. There’s a way to correct kids without them feeling criticized. We want to praise kids for the acquisition of knowledge and skills, and also help them recognize that there are many different ways to do something correctly. We want to help them be more open to different possibilities.”—Dr. Fornari

These are great stopgap measures, but how do you inspire a know-it-all kid to be more open-minded?

“Take your children to museums, read to them, and have interesting conversations. Ask them what they think about things that are going on in the world. All of these things foster curiosity and intellectual development.”—Ms. Stiffelman

“There are many kinds of activities that teach pro-social behavior. Scouting allows kids to learn about community service. Many families enroll children in religious education to give them a sense of spiritual belief and moral values, or in martial arts, where they learn sportsmanship and social behavior. Playing on teams helps kids learn about rules and fairness. Kids learn skills in all of these settings. They also learn these skills from reading, because there are relationships in the stories.”—Dr. Fornari

So how should parents talk to a know-it-all kid in a way that is sensitive but also sends the right message?

“Typically you can start having in-depth conversations with children when they’re eight or nine years old. It’s the behavior you want to focus on. You don’t want to tell a child, ‘No one will want to be your friend because you act like you know everything.’ You want to talk about the behavior and say, ‘You’re very smart and likable, but when you don’t listen to other people, it can be upsetting.’”—Dr. Lorber

“If we’re trying to deal with a problem behavior, we can address it by coming alongside the child rather than at him. Sometimes when I have a client in my office, I’ll say, ‘Are my feet cold?’ and she’ll say, ‘I don’t know.’ Ultimately the realization is that, ‘I don’t know because I’m not inside your skin.’ Help children understand that they can only know what’s inside themselves—they can never know what’s true for another person.”—Ms. Stiffelman

How many times a week does your child participate in structured after-school activities—at school or elsewhere?

Parents Talk Back
How many times a week does your child participate in structured after-school activities—at school or elsewhere?
Once or twice a week.
36% (24 votes)
Three or four times a week.
23% (15 votes)
My child has activities every day, Monday through Friday.
12% (8 votes)
My child doesn’t participate in activities right now.
29% (19 votes)
Total votes: 66