When my 7-year-old son got his first scooter, he was uncoordinated and out of control. With practice, Nicky made some progress, but he couldn't stop bragging about how he was "a champion scooterer" -- which drove his older brother up the wall and provoked an epic argument. When I wasn't worrying about his safety, I was puzzled: Why was Nicky so intent on proclaiming his greatness at something he obviously wasn't very good at? Did he truly believe what he was saying, or did he think that if he said it enough it would be true? And finally, if his bragging was irritating his brother, wouldn't it alienate his friends?
I'd been noticing that lots of kids his age tend to be immodest about their accomplishments. For example, I recently overheard one of Nicky's friends bragging about how famous she'd become because her name was in the newspaper on her birthday. A boy in his class who loved doing cartwheels and handstands spent months talking up his Olympic gymnastic talents to anyone within earshot. Although this boasting may seem obnoxious, it turns out that it's perfectly normal behavior. "After age 7, children develop a new cognitive ability to think of themselves as having enduring traits and abilities," explains developmental psychologist Martin Ford, Ph.D., professor of education at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia. "They're excited about these new ideas about themselves, so they want to talk about them and have others notice -- which is what leads to that bragging."
As a parent, you don't want to quash your kid's enthusiasm or blossoming self-awareness. But you don't want to raise a full-fledged braggart either. The key is to help your child tone it down and learn the right way to express his pride in what he can do, without exaggerating the truth. We've got the scoop on why so many kids this age toot their own horn, plus some pretty good advice (if we do say so ourselves) on how to handle it.
Some 7- and 8-year-old kids simply may not have the social graces to share their pride and joy about their accomplishments or possessions without sounding like bragzilla. In fact, your child may not even realize that telling the world she's the best soccer player, or swimmer, or that her uncle has a boat might be annoying to other kids. But why does she do it? "Sometimes children brag and boast in an effort to try to get attention or connect because they lack the appropriate social skills to do it in a more subtle, winning way," says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a child and family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills and author of The Self-Aware Parent. A 7- or 8-year-old is still on the cusp of understanding that others will notice her assets without being told and that she's good enough to get attention without stretching the truth.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that this is one of those behaviors that demands immediate intervention. "Your child's social awareness will likely come naturally, so try not to overreact to what is essentially a natural developmental process," Dr. Ford says. The fact is that her peers are probably engaged in similar self-promotion so they'll find it less cringe-worthy than you do. However, if you have reason to believe that your child's boasting is over the top, discuss the situation with her teacher, her coach, or her scout leader -- whoever is in the best position to observe the group dynamic and how your child is faring within it. If her "I'm a math genius" proclamations are indeed alienating her friends, you may need to nudge the learning process along. Try saying something like: "All those thoughts about feeling awesome at stuff like drawing cats or solving word problems are great to keep inside your own head to cheer yourself on when you need encouragement, but if you say them out loud, they could make a friend feel bad about his abilities or make you seem like a show-off."
Kids this age can be fiercely competitive, and sometimes they'll do almost anything with the hope of gaining an advantage over a peer. "Many children still believe that putting others down will automatically elevate their own status," says Dr. Walfish. Even if the other kids seem to tolerate that kind of trash-talking, you obviously don't want your child to use being mean to others as a way of pulling ahead of the pack. If you notice that this is becoming a habit, step in just as you would when other rude behavior like name-calling or put-downs start getting out of hand. Explain that sharing information that's a statement of fact about something you can do ("I can play 'Somebody to Love' on the guitar") is fine, but it's hurtful to frame things in a way that's about being better than a friend ("I can play four Justin Bieber songs, and you can't play any!"), and it can push a pal away.
Another intervention-worthy scenario is when you overhear your kid saying something like: "I'm getting a new guitar for my birthday that's so much better than your guitar." Bragging about material possessions should be something you clearly draw the line on. The problem is that some kids have a hard time seeing the difference between expressing genuine excitement over a shiny new object and, well, being a jerk. Explain that while it's okay to tell others about a new possession, it should be done in the spirit of sharing, not making someone else feel bad or left out. And make sure that you're modeling modesty in front of your child. Not showing off your latest iPad or expensive boots goes a long way.
The bigger and more extravagant the boast, the more likely it is to be motivated by low self-esteem. So take a look at what's going on in your child's life. "Kids often are vulnerable whenever there's a transition -- a physical, social, intellectual, or emotional growth spurt," explains Dee Shepherd-Look, Ph.D., professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge. "They may deal with that vulnerability by trying to make themselves look big by bragging."
With that in mind, try to tease out whether insecurities are causing your child to become a bragosaurus. There may not be an obvious connection. A kid who's struggling with reading may talk nonstop about something she's really great at -- like her soccer defense. Or the child who just got a new sibling may suddenly become all about how she's going to Hawaii (even though she's not). So take a step back and see whether you can address the underlying issue (by taking turns reading a great chapter book, for example), rather than trying to focus on the boasting. Help her feel comfortable discussing what she's anxious about, and her obnoxious soccer talk may fade once she feels more confident. And when you encourage her to be generous in her praise of others, she'll be able to feel good about it and enjoy the glory, without broadcasting it to the world.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Parents magazine.