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Mr. Know-it-all

Before we had kids, my husband used to have a standard joke that he needed to get a business card that said “Mr. Know-it-all.” He has one of those encyclopedic brains, and he reads voraciously. So even though we don’t watch TV or listen to most popular music, if I say, “who is that person on the front of the Enquirer?” he’ll be able to answer. He knows the meaning to most any word we can find, though I have occasionally stumped him (and let me tell you, it’s thrilling when I do!).

Our son has inherited that particular characteristic from his father, but there is one big difference: His father was an only child, and he probably learned the various ways to offer corrections to people’s misinformation from other neighborhood kids and on the playground. You learn good and quick not to answer a kid’s boast with, “Well, actually, that’s not exactly true.” He learned that there are lots of situations in which correcting people is not polite, not socially acceptable, and a bad way to keep friends.

Our son, however, has a little sister. And like all little sisters, she says things that are fantasy, wish-fulfillment, or just plain not true. And unlike kids at school, his sister isn’t going anywhere. Perhaps he has largely figured out not to constantly correct his friends, but he sees no particular downside to correcting his sister… often.

I remember when I learned about autism. I was at college, and I read something about it, and how it manifests itself on a spectrum. I remember looking around myself and thinking, hm, I bet some of my friends are on that spectrum!

It’s fascinating how certain characteristics tend to bunch together. I went to Stanford, and so all my peers there had been very, very good students. But I am sure that for many of us, that came at a cost: learning social cues was more difficult. Kids who have books to love depend less on friends. And perhaps it’s a chicken and egg thing: kids who are predisposed toward using their brains more than their bodies are more likely to end up socially awkward. Or is it that kids who are socially awkward gravitate toward using their brains in a different way?

I knew people who’d gone to MIT, a place where the “nerdy” kids (mostly boys) were even more concentrated than at Stanford. And social skills were even less in evidence there.

Of course, you get those Tiger Woods characters: smart (he went to Stanford), personable (just look at that smile), and athletic. But they are clearly outliers when you look at the general trends among humans. Most of us are better in one realm of human existence than in others. And the more we apply ourselves in that direction, the less we have to give in other directions.

[*Tiger Woods actually came into my mind randomly, but I now remember that a friend suggested the other day that in order to get more hits on my Examiner stories, which pay by the click, I should write about Tiger Woods. Because I don’t watch TV, I am only vaguely aware of what’s been going on. But here it is, my almost gratuitous mention of Tiger Woods!]

So my husband and I have been experimenting with ways to get our son to stop critiquing every little statement his sister makes. So far, we haven’t come up with much. It’s gotten to the point that we can hear it coming, so we try to stop him and ask him to think about what he’s going to say. But he [honestly, I think] doesn’t think that what he’s saying is a criticism. It just hurts him to hear people saying things that aren’t true.

I know how he feels. I learned very early about not being a know-it-all at school. But I remember the feeling of sitting there listening to people saying things that were wrong and feeling this sort of discomfort verging on pain. I loved knowing things! Doesn’t everyone love knowing things? Don’t they want to know that they are wrong and fix it?

But I also know how my daughter feels. When she was little, I read that studies of kids find that first children are more likely to have imaginary friends — kids who have older siblings get teased out of that luxury. As soon as our daughter’s imagination started to blossom, I started to remind our son that he once had imaginary friends who lived in an imaginary world (an island near Japan, if you want to know), and we let him have that time.

Our son’s teacher said something to him recently that I think might be an appropriate metaphor. He said something like, “Don’t use your intelligence as a mallet.” You can’t — no matter how tempting it seems — bang knowledge into people’s heads. The most gracious people figure out other ways of doing it.

And if nothing else fails, at least you can look at yourself with humor. I’m thinking that perhaps I need to get my son Mr. Know-it-all cards. Then when his sister says something the is incorrect, he can hand her a card and offer her his services… when she’s ready to receive them!

Posted in Culture, Parenting, Psychology.


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