My 5-year-old niece will gladly talk about how smart she is or all the things she can do better than her friends, such as drawing or spelling.
It makes me chuckle, and experts say that starting around age 5, bragging is normal. Kids are trying to figure out the differences between themselves and others, so they measure their talents, accomplishments, and material possessions against those of their peers, says psychologist Stephanie Mihalas, Ph.D., founder of The Center for Well-Being in Los Angeles. Although the behavior usually isn't malicious, it can rub others the wrong way. Use these tips to help limit your child's "I'm awesome" talk.
Many 5- and 6-year-olds don't really understand what the word brag means or why they shouldn't do it. Start the conversation by explaining what bragging is and why it can be hurtful. Dr. Mihalas suggests saying, "Bragging is when you talk about all of the cool toys your own or how you can do something better than your friends. It can make people feel bad because they may not have the same toys or be able to do things the same way you can."
Try reading books like Well, I Can Top That!, by Julia Cook, or I'm the Best, by Lucy Cousins. Or, role-play different scenarios and ask your child, "How do you think
that person felt?" or "How would you feel?" This can help your child identify bragging and understand how it impacts everyone involved.
Rachel Rodriguez, a mother of two from Palm Springs, California, used to get frustrated when her 5-year-old daughter's friend would gloat about her reading and math skills. Then she met the girl's mother, who went on about her volunteering efforts and even bragged about how advanced her dog was in obedience school.
Clearly, kids follow their parents' lead. So practice humility and resist comparing your child with other kids or siblings. That's not to say you can't praise your child; however, constant "Good job!" compliments can become meaningless over time and cause children to think they deserve feedback about everything, says Dr. Mihalas. Instead, be specific with your praise and emphasize effort rather than the end result. Say, "You must be so proud of yourself. You're learning so many new words" or "Wow, that block tower is getting pretty tall!" Sincere and well-placed kudos are more effective and less likely to make your child a praise junkie.
A child with healthy self-esteem makes himself feel good, whereas a boastful child relies on the feedback of others to give himself a boost. So if you hear your child bragging, think about what he is trying to accomplish. "If you ask a child why he was bragging, most kids will say they don't know -- or that they weren't," says Dr. Mihalas. A better approach is talking about the situation without mentioning the boastful behavior ("I noticed you seemed upset at the park when Timmy said he can jump high"). This can help you figure out what your child is seeking, says Dr. Mihalas. Once you know, help him come up with positive ways to get it.
Angela Hadl, a New York City mom, realized that her sons, ages 5 and 6, try to upstage each other as a way to get attention from their parents or older sister. "Whether it's who is drawing the more colorful picture or who can hang from the top bunk the longest, they always say they can do it better than the other in the loudest voice," she says. Making the kids feel special, by spending one-on-one time with each child, has helped, says Hadl.
Even though kindergartners are just starting to learn about money, it's not uncommon for them to compare finances and material possessions. Experts say that talking about being humble and the importance of helping others is a good idea. Involving your child in charity or volunteer work, such as donating old toys and clothes to kids in need or helping sort food at the local food bank, can help her learn to be modest about what she has and teaches her to be empathetic to others, says Helen F. Neville, R.N., author of Is This a Phase? Child Development & Parent Strategies, Birth to 6 Years.
Obviously, your child will want to share good news at times, and the ability to speak highly of himself will be beneficial in the future (say, during job interviews). However, you can teach him to be aware of timing, the situation, whom he's sharing with, and the reactions of others. For example, say, "It's okay to tell me or Grandma how happy you are that you won the 'Excellent Student' award, but talking about it in front of a friend who didn't get it might hurt his feelings." Point out that friends might not want to be around someone who makes them feel bad. If boasting happens often, try using a signal, like a tug on your ear, to let him know he's going overboard. He'll still slip up at times, but with a little patience, you can get his "me, me, me" habit under control.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Parents magazine.