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“My Tween is a “Know-it-All!”: How to encourage humility & kindness

A mom recently asked how she could teach her tween humility and kindness. “My 11-year-old is smart, athletic, well-liked and a leader in his friend group,” she shared, but also confessed, “lately I have been noticing a side to him that I do not like: self-centered, lacking empathy, argumentative, and he thinks he knows it all!” This mom sees her son being disrespectful to doting grandparents and judgmental of his peers, and she wants her son to understand the importance of humility and kindness.

Her thoughtful question reflects the gift and personal challenge of watching our children not only in the moment, but also with that larger “third eye” that sees patterns in behavior that may define life paths.

It is difficult to think we might be raising someone we will continue to love but not always like. There is a gift in having been through the prior stages with a child as they enter early adolescence. You will have lived through and guided him through stages (think toddlerhood) that were not particularly fun for either of you. With the positive seeds of family around him and your guidance and persistence, this too is likely to be a rough patch that can be integrated into the positive person you are hoping to know as an adult.

As we enter into strategies to address behavior we should also consider context.

Praise in public, teach in private.

In general the kind of coaching this boy needs now is more challenging because as a bright athletic child he is often in public contexts—game events, clusters of friends, grandparent visits. These contexts place both parent and child “on stage” and make it difficult to address issues in the moment. While this does not give either permission to let it slide, it does, however, mean that in the insanely pushed intensity of the day it is the parent’s responsibility to create time to address issues. Often this is best done in the car when an adult literally cannot be “in his face” and he has no choice but to be present for the discussion. It may also be that these discussions become part of father-son time when they are, for instance, outside tossing a ball or active in some other way.

Same gender mentor.

This may be a time when the adults need to discuss “mom’s voice vs. dad/grandfather’s voice.” I say this because a male voice can be helpful to a young boy as he figures out the larger questions: What does it mean to be a man? And how do the strongest and most able of men, as your son is becoming, contribute to family, friends and community? If Dad and Grandfather are living these answers then some of this is being taught, but even in that context it is often wise to have respected male leaders as mentors. They have more “permission” to hold other men accountable for their behavior and their choices.

Meanwhile, the mother and other caregivers are called to remain calm and firm in their own leadership roles. This is done by maintaining your standards—his chores are still his, speaking to you politely is still required, etc.

Secure people are not defensive.

It can be very hard to have compassion for someone who seems to have it all and, as this mom said, “thinks he knows it all!” For all his gifts and ability to sound like a short adult, this child is facing a huge world and finding his way. Does he really think he knows it all? Or, does he need to save face with siblings or friends in the audience? Is he figuring out what it means to be in charge of oneself as well as what it means to be a team member?

Logical consequences.

It is rarely an enjoyable experience to have others point out where or how we could have done better. It takes some self-confidence, appreciation of a future benefit, and lots of maturity to work through a behavior change. Because of immaturity (brain development), a boy this age will be unable to fully grasp “it will be good for your future.” This is why adults need to create logical consequences for behaviors that are more immediate and call the child into awareness of his negative choices as they relate to interactions with others.

Logical consequences are a real challenge for parents, but appropriate logical consequences are powerful teachers. When you have a discussion with your child about what is expected from people who are nearing adulthood, you can also talk about what are reasonable consequences for when he does not live to that expectation. For instance, if he is using his phone privileges too late and has a hard time in the morning, then the logical consequence would be to remove access to the phone at your pre-determined bedtime. There is no one-size-fits-all logical consequence. When it comes to disrespectful and argumentative behavior, your response will come from your values. Typically, an 11-yr-old is dependent on his parents for basic things. One response might be to inform him that, should he hope that you will respond to his request, certain words and tones will be more successful than others.

Seeds of empathy.

You cannot force a feeling from someone. So a directive such as, “Don’t talk about people that way!” is not likely to be effective. Rather, when a child is judgmental, it is an opportunity to engage that child in a way that allows him to see from another’s perspective. Judgment usually reflects the judger’s disappointment, so that can be an inroad to conversation. For instance, after some not so kind words about friend J, you might say:

“You shared some harsh words about J, what happened that triggered that kind of language?”

“…I get it, it must have been frustrating for you when J dropped all those passes, do you think it was frustrating for him?”

“If you were his coach, how might you help him?”

Gentle simple questions that nudge the tween to reflect on his feelings and the feelings of others is one way for that seed of empathy to get planted.

Tap into your village.

Talk to other trusted adults in private about your goals for your child. Note that doting grandparents may miss the opportunity to share the wisdom they have accumulated rather than the wealth they have accumulated. Engaging them in deep discussions about the goals you have will help build a united front for addressing some of the behavior you describe.

Other Village members like teachers and coaches can be a resource to you. They are often able to provide more information about how your child is managing the complexity of his social environment when you are not there to observe. Sometimes our children are not carrying the negative behavior beyond the home and sometimes they are. If teachers or coaches are seeing behavior that echo your concerns your combined efforts will greatly enhance the character development you are hoping to see.

This mom has shared a great question. When our children are small no one tells us how much the work of parenting will continue after they can walk and talk and feed themselves. Remember to take care of yourself along the way.

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