Smart Answers to Parents’ Toughest Questions

Is Your Kid a Smarty Pants?

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Label it what you will—a know-it-all, a kid who thinks he has all the answers, a smarty pants. Learn what’s behind this sassy behavior 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.

Know-it-alls come in all shapes and sizes. If your kid has a knack for halting a lively conversation, read on—and find out what our experts have to say.

So, tell us: What exactly is a know-it-all kid—and what makes a kid think he knows more than others?

“There are at least two types of know-it-all children. One is the child who does know a lot, and is advanced for his age and sophisticated. His knowledge is beyond many of his peers, and his confidence is based on his intellectual ability. It can be a very big part of his identity. Sometimes, if it’s the only commodity he has in his household, that’s what he trades on to get affection and attention. The second possibility is pure, outright, old-fashioned insecurity. If the child has found that this is the only way she feels validated, seen, or appreciated, then she may become a one-trick pony.”—Ms. Stiffelman “Just as some children are better at sharing, or are more thoughtful, some have personalities that are more stubborn. It’s a mix of genetics, environment, and upbringing.”—Dr. Lorber

In general, how do parents and other adults view “I’m right and you’re wrong” kind of kids?

“Some parents become very concerned their child is rude and obnoxious; others think that it is just kids being kids. Good teachers, coaches, and after-school program directors recognize that the attitude is part of normal development, and they are able to deal with it better. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, older sibling, or coach, you never want to label a child as being a ‘bad child.’”—Dr. Lorber

So are you saying that being a know-it-all kid is, well, actually normal?

“Most children are know-it-alls in some regard—they have their mind set that something is correct even when it’s obvious to others that it isn’t. There’s a process that children go through called separation and individuation. It’s the process of a child wanting to separate from one’s own parents and form a personal identity of his or her own. It’s a long process that starts at the preteen stage and goes through the teenage years. Very young children, however, will frequently mimic what they hear from peers. So if a child hears that babies that come from storks, he’ll go home and repeat it to his parents. Parents may say ‘That’s not where babies come from,’ and the child may be stubborn and say, ‘Johnny, told me so, and this is how it is.’ This is normal behavior.”—Dr. Lorber

But don’t other kids see know-it-alls as obnoxious or overbearing?

“It can be very off-putting to other youngsters, who don’t like when a child acts as if he always know everything. But the [know-it-all] child hasn’t developed the social maturity to read cues and see that other kids’ reactions are, ‘You’re being a jerk’ or ‘I don’t care.’ It’s usually not until kids are thrown in with lots of other children, for example, in kindergarten, that they’re going to discover peers won’t like them for this behavior. It’s very seldom a quality that attracts other children.”—Ms. Stiffelman

Yet some kids continue to act in a pompous manner. Do they truly understand what they’re doing?

“Children are learning a lot of information and have a lot of pride and confidence, so they want to share their knowledge. They may not recognize the subtlety of how they’re coming across—that they’re rigid and think they’re the only ones who are right. They have to recognize that other people can also be right.”—Dr. Fornari “Kids who don’t socialize much are more prone to this behavior because a lot of learning comes with peer-to-peer interaction. When kids insist they’re right, they learn from peers that no one will want to play with them if that’s how they interact, so they learn not to engage in that behavior. If kids don’t socialize, they may not learn from those interactions. Getting kids into after-school activities, music, and sports can be helpful.”—Dr. Lorber

Does that mean the know-it-all phase will pass…eventually?

“Development occurs at its own pace for each child—some develop earlier, some later—the key is just that they get there. When kids are younger, we’re less concerned about not understanding the nuances of social interactions. At age 10, 11, or 12, we hope they’ve recognized better ways to interact with others. In early adolescence, kids develop a greater sense of nuances within relationships. They recognize when they say things a certain way, it may make people feel a certain way. So they develop more positive social interactions.”—Dr. Fornari

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