The Know-It-All Stage
"I know, Mom!" When your child says this because they have truly learned something new and exciting, it's wonderful to hear. But when it becomes their answer to everything, even to things they obviously don't know, it takes on a life of its own.
The "know-it-all" stage can drive parents a little bit nutty. So why do kids go through it? Are there actually benefits to being a "know-it-all"?
Who better to answer these questions than Michelle LaRowe, professional nanny and author of Nanny to the Rescue! (W Publishing Group, 2006) and Nanny to the Rescue Again! (W Publishing Group, 2006). According to LaRowe, the "know-it-all" stage usually begins when kids are in their early grade school years.
"It's a time when a child is mastering new skills and is experiencing a surge in confidence," says LaRowe, also founder and president of Boston Area Nannies. "This confidence overflows into every area of her life and she begins to believe that she has mastered all of life's skills, above and beyond what she has truly come to be proficient in. She is definitely not shy in letting you know that she has arrived – the life expert has entered the house."
Stephanie Elliott, a mother of three from Woodridge, Ill., found that this stage started even earlier – maybe as early as ages 4 or 5 – when her kids discovered they had opinions about the things around them. Elliott says, in her children, it manifests itself as "a lot of talking back or telling me they can do something (like tie a shoe or untie a difficult knot) when I clearly know at that stage they are incapable of doing the task, yet they want to do it and be a know-it-all."
LaRowe maintains that there are good things about this sometimes annoying stage. "Kids are mastering new skills during this exciting time of development," she says. "As they master skills, whether it be social, educational or emotional, they naturally gain confidence in themselves and their abilities."
So where does this all go wrong? Children want to keep learning and mastering skills – without any help. But they can become offended and often feel belittled when help is offered. This is often when they begin insisting that they know it all.
LaRowe says the "know-it-all" stage has two characteristics – the bucking of authority and the attitude. It's the attitude that turns it into something that causes the problems. "The haughty I-know-it-all type of comments, looks and communication cues are what turn the acceptable behaviors into unacceptable," LaRowe says.
Rhonda Pollero's 9-year-old daughter is a good example. "She thinks we should negotiate everything since there isn't anything she doesn't know," says the mom from Hobe Sound, Fla.
Independent learning in a safe environment is great for a child, says LaRowe. "But when they begin to express this desire using inappropriate communication it becomes not OK. It is a natural progression in development for a child to question their authority, but it's the manner that they do it in that makes it unacceptable."
Insisting they know how to do something – such as zipping their coat with heavy gloves on – is one way this stage plays out. Another way is when they insist that they know something, such as a fact. "I [find] debating actual facts to be pointless, especially when she's in a defiant, know-it-all mode," Pollero says.
How to Keep Your Sanity
No matter how important this stage is in developing confident, independent children, it can be enough to make the most patient parent lose it. So what can you do about it?
"If they're not harming anyone by 'thinking' they're right about something, then I just let it go," Elliott says. And if her third grader insists that the math problem he is working on is correct (when it's not), she tells him to show it to his teacher. "They always believe the teachers!" she says.
But when it comes to more serious issues, letting it go is not an option. "If they're being a know-it-all telling me they won't crash on their bike and don't want to wear a helmet, then I'll insist," Elliott says. "When it comes to safety and harming themselves, they clearly do not know it all!"
LaRowe assures parents that setting boundaries and enforcing consistent consequences will usually nip this behavior in the bud, and agrees that there are times when it's OK to let them learn that they don't know everything they think they know, if it's not a safety issue.
"When it's safe, allow your child to take safe risks that allow him to learn on his own," LaRowe says. "It's like fighting with a toddler who doesn't want to put on his jacket. It's not really worth it because when he takes his first step outside in the cold, he'll be begging you for it. No harm done and lesson learned. It's the same sort of thing with grade-schoolers."
Even LaRowe, an International Nanny Association "Nanny of the Year," knows that it can be tempting to scream "You don't know! Why do you say you do?" But she cautions that feeding the behavior will just foster it. "Set limits and boundaries and hold firm to them," she says. "Acknowledge and validate your child's feelings and congratulate him with positive, purposeful praise when he does master a new task, but do not tolerate inappropriate expressions of his feelings."
Remember that limits and boundaries will be different with every child. "To avoid the pointless debates, I tried everything," Pollero says. "Time out, loss of toys/electronics/computer time, etc. Nothing worked." Until she discovered that working on the "fine system" worked for her and her daughter.
"We introduced the rule with one warning [from me] – 'I will not argue this point with you. Stop now or it will cost you X"," Pollero says. This fine was usually a dollar (or higher, depending on the attitude, which definitely drives up the level of parental frustration). "Now, a month later, no more warnings," she says, "The rule is in place and she now knows it is a rule."
LaRowe suggests parents also lead by example. "It's so important to model desirable behavior," she says. "The way you interact with others, your spouse and your child all provide natural learning moments."
LaRowe encourages parents to be cautious in their communication. "Keep your cool, and if you are feeling frustrated, talk to your child in a calm but firm manner," she says. "[For instance] 'I know you are frustrated when I tell you something you believe you already know because I went through that too when I was young. I am frustrated that you don't want my help. We are both learning, so let's try to be patient and work together.' And then move forward in that patience."