Teaching a Sensitive, Pre-Teen Know-it-All

Witness an actual conversation that occurred between the 11 year old and myself:

Picture me, excited because I think I’ve found a co-op class that my drama-loving, ever-talking, debate-engaging, pre-teen son will enjoy.

Me:  Cub, there’s a homeschool speech and leadership class offered through the library.  What do ya think?!

Cub:  Oh, yeah.  (with all the liveliness of a block of wood)

Me:  (amping up the enthusiasm in the hopes it would be contagious) Yeah!  I thought you’d really enjoy it . . . you’ll learn ways to project your voice and use body language and get to tell stories . . .

Cub:  (eye roll)  Mom . . . I already know how to do all that.  I’m an actor.  I’ve been in plays.  I don’t need to learn more.  

And Cub exits stage left.  Which was probably a good thing, because that kind of mindset makes me want to strangle him just a little bit.

He’s always been a precocious little kid.  And while the official definition of precocious has something to do with developing abilities at an earlier age than usual, I’m using it as a synonym for smart aleck, wiseguy, smarty pants, know-it-all, etc.  Sometimes this attitude of his can be an asset, like when he’s in a group of kids and steadfastly sticks to his convictions.  But, when I’m trying to teach him something, either in his academics or just passing on mom-wisdom, it is incredibly infuriating and gets in the way of actual learning.

He’ll staunchly talk over my explanations on how to do a math problem, because he knows what he’s doing even though he’s doing it completely wrong.  He’ll refuse classes, or grudgingly participate, because he doesn’t think he has anything more to learn on the topic.  He’ll spout off about a topic that he actually knows little about, but maintain that he saw it somewhere on youtube, so he knows more about it than anyone else.  This unabashed certitude is a hallmark of giftedness and of being a pre-teen, and when those have combined over the past couple of years . . . well . . . there really are no words.  I mean, seriously.  Holy hell.

And for me, personally, narcissism is one of my biggest pet peeves.  And when I see my lovely little boy overflowing with it, part of me becomes very adolescent and I want to show him just how wrong he is.  I want to tie him down, duct-tape his mouth and “make” him listen to me.  I want to make him eat his all-knowing words.  And while I’ve never actually duct-taped his mouth shut, I have uncontrollably jumped into a power struggle with the boy and tried to lecture him into wisdom.  Which, you know, worked really well.

To complicate things, Cub is also one of the most emotionally intense and empathetically sensitive souls I’ve ever met.  Oh, and lets not forget the perfectionism that many gifted children are simply born with.  To provide correction and guidance to this child requires a very fine balancing act.  He already beats himself up enough if he thinks he’s made a mistake, his mom certainly doesn’t need to add fuel to his fire.  He picks up on tone and feels other people’s emotions, so even the hint of frustration or disappointment can have him feeling bad for hours or days.

As a parent and teacher, this balancing act can be so difficult to walk.  Our children require correction.  Developing a growth mindset and the humility to know that there’s always more to be learned is essential for success.  But, our children also need us to be their soft place to land.  They need us to be their champions and cheerleaders.  

Here are a few things I’ve learned about how to navigate this contradictory place of sensitive narcissism.

First and foremost, I need to prioritize my own emotional regulation.  When he refuses to listen to my teaching, I need to take a few breathes and not take it personally.  I need to quiet my own know-it-all tendency that wants to prove just how right I am and remember that the irritating wise-ass sitting in front of me is actually just my little cub who’s trying to find his way.  I need to stay calm.

I need to provide space and time.  Not all lessons can be learned in one sitting.  We’re in it for the long haul and when I can keep my eyes on the long-term prize, I can see this one moment as simply a building block.

I need to allow my own discomfort and watch him struggle and fail.  If he thinks he knows how to do the math problem and won’t listen to instruction, let him do it his way and see where he gets.  Let him find his own errors.  Let him come to me and ask for help when he does finally see for himself that he doesn’t understand.  That’s far more effective than when I’ve tried to make him see that he needs help.

I need to model my own growth mindset.  Fully acknowledge when I don’t know something.  Ask for help.  Show my kids that I’m continually learning.  Be willing to show humility when I’ve thought I’ve known something to be true and learned that I was mistaken.

And I need to provide all correction nestled gently between words of love and full-on acceptance.  Even when his eyes are rolling and his words are sarcastic, he continues to be a gentle soul who simply needs, like all of us, to know that he’s loved and worthwhile simply for being who he is.

After some time and space away from each other, I was able to calmly explain why I thought the speech and leadership class would be helpful and he was able to listen to my words.  And victory for mom!  He’s signed up for the class.  Though now that I’m thinking about it, maybe giving him more tools to eloquently argue with me was not my wisest move.