Why Kids Brag
"Wow, that was a great shot!" my son's 4-year-old friend Sean shouted as he scored a basket in my driveway. "I'm doing really good," he told me. "I sure know how to play!"
His pleasure in himself was so blatant that it almost made me wince. However, I seem to encounter this "I'm the king of the world" attitude all the time with both preschool boys and girls. "I have two Mickey Mouse books, and I have Donald Duck and Beauty and the Beast," Michelle declared proudly when I was carpooling a group of kids to music class. "That means I have so many Disney books!"
My son, David, certainly does his share of gloating. "I'm bigger than you," he told his friend Jake. "I'm in the 4's class, and you're only in the 3's."
I realize that sensitivity and tact are not a 4-year-old's strong suits. But I also know that parents spend an awful lot of time telling their kids how great they are. As we take every opportunity to nurture our children's self-esteem, I can't help but wonder whether we're raising a generation of kids whose delight in themselves will make them indifferent to others. Should parents be trying to teach their preschoolers to have a sense of humility?
Boasting is not only normal, it's healthy at this age, according to Marvin Berkowitz, Ph.D., a professor of character education at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. "One of the most important tasks for a child is to develop a sense of herself as a causal agent -- that she is successful and can make things happen," says Dr. Berkowitz.
Kids who are raised in a loving, secure environment will continue to have positive opinions of themselves throughout their preschool years. When a 3- or 4-year-old calls attention to her accomplishments -- whether she's scoring a goal, displaying a drawing, or leading her class to the playground -- it's her way of expressing feelings of satisfaction, such as "I'm happy," "This is really fun," or "These people like me."
Furthermore, a preschooler's high self-regard tends to be absolute. "A child doesn't think, 'I'm good at this but not so good at that,'" says Dr. Berkowitz. "He just thinks, 'I'm good.' It's not until elementary school that kids begin to have a more realistic view of their strengths and weaknesses."
Because preschoolers are spending time in a group setting where they can compare themselves with classmates, it's natural for them to express their confidence with claims of superiority ("I'm faster than you!"). Children generally don't intend to hurt their friends' feelings; they simply don't realize that celebrating their successes can make someone else feel bad, notes Peter Gorski, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. "Three and 4-year-olds have trouble understanding that people can feel differently about the same event."
When a child tends to boast much more than her peers, though, it's often because she doesn't get enough approval from her parents -- and she brags as a way of finding out whether she is valued, says Ervin Staub, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Sometimes it's the result of receiving too much praise -- giving the child the message that constant self-promotion is perfectly fine.
A child who suddenly starts boasting excessively may also be responding to new peer pressures. "You have to wonder what's going on in the child's environment," says Dr. Gorski. "Is he imitating another child? Is he being teased? Is he spending a lot of time in a setting where winning is all that matters, such as a sports program? It's best to discuss the situation with your child's preschool teacher or caregiver."
However, if your child simply expresses delight in his own accomplishments, experts say it's fine to reinforce these normal feelings. On the other hand, if your child seems to derive pleasure primarily from doing something better than someone else, your response can help provide valuable lessons in sensitivity to others' feelings.
Appropriate Praise: Expert Tips
- Set a good example. Your child learns how to behave by watching and imitating you, so examine how you react to your successes. Resist the temptation to put others down or to gloat. "It's important for parents to show that you can feel good about yourself without tooting your own horn or hurting others," says Mark Barnett, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Kansas State University, in Manhattan.
- Provide appropriate praise. Although it's fine to compliment your child for achieving something that his peers are still struggling with, focus your enthusiasm on your child's efforts. Rather than saying, "You threw the ball farther than anyone else" or "You earned the most stickers," for example, say, "You really tried hard to learn that game" or "When I saw you on the field, you looked like you were having so much fun."
- Help your preschooler consider others' feelings. If you hear your child boasting, "You can't do that, but I can," for instance, wait until after her friend has left, and say something like "It's great that you play ball so well. But how would you feel if Emily kept saying she was better than you?" suggests Barbara Edell Fisher, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist practicing in Commack, New York. "Then give your child an alternative, such as 'The next time you feel like talking about how well you play, tell Mommy and Daddy instead. We'll always want to hear it.'"
- Finally, show your child that it feels good to give compliments as well as receive them. One way to curb hurtful boasting is to help your preschooler find ways to praise playmates, says Dr. Gorski. "You could say to your child, 'Yes, you are good at this game. But look how well Adam is doing too. He's really trying to learn how to play. Let's tell him how much he has improved.'" Preschoolers may not be ready to offer such compliments on their own, but they'll learn about respect and consideration from your good example. "You're helping your child learn to appreciate others," Dr. Gorski adds, "and that's a very important lesson."
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the January 1999 issue of Parents magazine.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.