Care and Feeding

My 6-Year-Old Is Calling Me Dumb, and It’s Really Upsetting

How do I get the smart aleck to stop?

A freckle-faced little boy looking smug, like he just corrected his mom.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My normally sweet and considerate 6-year-old has suddenly decided that he’s smarter than me. MUCH smarter than me. He’s grown fond of asking me questions and then disputing my answers, and he takes great joy in my not knowing the answer to a question. I have dyscalculia, which he knows, and he thinks it’s hilarious to try to stump me with complicated mental arithmetic (“Hey, Mommy! What’s 3,475 times 7,213? Ha ha!”). When he disagrees with me over a fact, and I show him the correct answer in a book, he’ll tell me the book is wrong, too. He once told me I needed to go back to college because he asked me the meaning of a word (a meaningless bit of gibberish he had made up on the spot), and I couldn’t tell him.

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My husband and I have become really frustrated with his rudeness and have had several talks with him about how it’s unkind to speak to people like this. My husband has also reiterated multiple times that while no adult knows everything, I’m intelligent and the most educated person in our family. My son is doing very well in school, and perhaps he’s just feeling cocky because he’s one of the strongest readers in his class, but it’s making me miserable. His teachers say they haven’t seen any behavior like this in school. Is this a normal kindergarten phase? How can we put a stop to this insufferable behavior? I want him to be confident and take pride in his skills, but lectures on respect and being a kind friend seem to be getting us nowhere.

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—Mom of an Evil Genius?

Dear M.a.G.,

Ugh, kids can be such jerks. I might be way off base, but have you considered that his outsized cockiness stems not from true over-the-top confidence but from insecurity? Even if he’s doing well academically, no one is doing well socially right now. If he does this to his classmates, they’ll shut him down, or they would if they were interacting normally, and I’m guessing they’re not. This smart-aleck persona is something he’s trying on, and you just happen to the be the person he’s most comfortable being his most obnoxious self around. Congratulations! Now, how to make him stop?

My brilliant, unexpected answer is: Just stay the course. He knows you’re smarter than he is, and that he’s being disrespectful, so the lectures are just a waste of time and energy. Reward his know-it-all games with as little attention as possible. Deflect, distract, and ignore. When he talks to you about something other than his brilliance, give him your full attention and praise him to the skies as often as you can.  With time, he’ll move on to some other annoying habit.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I would like to ask for advice on how to let/enable my in-laws to help more with child care.
My husband and I (female) have a 6-month-old. His parents live an hour away, so we have formed a bubble with them so they can see the baby on the weekends.

Before they visit, they always say they want to help, and that they would like to babysit. And my husband and I always talk about how we want to let them help. But when they arrive, they get so excited that they overwhelm her, she cries, and my husband and I end up soothing her and we all sit around drinking coffee and socializing. Which is nice, but we really do need to get stuff done! And I want them to be able to babysit eventually. Part of the problem is that my in-laws are in their 60s and both have joint ailments that make juggling an increasingly heavy, wiggly baby difficult for more than a few minutes at a time.

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Do you have any tips for making baby care easier for someone with physical disabilities? I know there are parents who have disabilities, so there must be ways to do this. Any advice for getting overexcited first-time grandparents to calm down and getting worried first-time parents to let go?

—Tired Tot Wrangler

Dear Tired,

As soon as the grandparents arrive, make up an errand and leave. Even if you just drive around, you’ll be giving your in-laws the freedom they need to do things their own way and quickly shifting the mood in the room from joyful (overstimulating) greetings to more focused child care. As to the joint ailments, if they truly can’t manage things like diaper changes and putting her in the crib on their own, you’ll need to stay nearby, but that doesn’t mean you can’t escape for at least an hour or so.

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If true babysitting does end up being beyond them, you will need to find another source of help that doesn’t compromise your bubble, and you’ll need to see your in-laws less frequently, until everyone can be vaccinated. This is unfortunate but it’s not going to help your relationship in the long run to be relying exclusively on them for child care that they’re not capable of providing.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We have a now 2-year-old that started day care for two days a week in January 2020 only for that to end abruptly in mid-March, as it did for most everyone. In the summer it felt like so many of us were “in it together”—those of us lucky to have full-time jobs, but without child care doing a “half-baked” job together. When our day care reopened, they invited us back with enhanced hygiene procedures, but they mentioned a parent with kids at the center is an EMT, which felt like too close to possible COVID-19 exposure.

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Now it feels like EVERY ONE of my colleagues have all started using day care again when most days I’m not even treading water, I’m sunk. It’s not like I NEED child care (my workplace is remote through April, and even when it’s not, between my partner and I we made it work for the first two years), but my work quality is suffering and while my managers have said they’ll take “pandemic factors” into consideration with work evaluations, if most everyone has day care again and I don’t, then I’m coming up short.

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But then if I start daydreaming of having day care again, I think of how our state is in CRISIS right now with COVID-19, I think of our pediatrician who strongly advised against it for now if it was at all possible, and I think of how I may be pregnant through the next year (I’m very early in my first trimester with a history of loss) and how little we know about COVID-19 and early pregnancy. I’m skeptical of hiring a sitter because we don’t have a lot of money and it feels like it would be an impossible ask to hire someone for eight hours a week and then expect major safety commitments from them.

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This is starting to feel more like a bundle of conflicting hopes and worries and not a question, but I guess I’m asking: How did you or other parents make the decision to use child care again? How does changing local information impact your decision or daily use of it? How do you manage the anxiety of knowing your child may be exposed when they’re at day care? And how should the distribution of vaccines impact decisions about child care into the next year? It just feels like so much of approaching this question has been like the U.S. response to the pandemic itself: We all have the “freedom” to figure out what’s best for your family.

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—Sinking in SoCal

Dear Sinking,

You have my sympathy! These are impossible decisions, and I agree that it’s grossly unfair that the burden of managing the pandemic has fallen on the shoulders of individuals.

That said, I think that you need child care in order to do your job and protect your mental health. You and your partner were able to take care of a baby by “making it work,” but that’s very different from caring for a toddler. It feels strange to me to be pushing back against the advice of your pediatrician, but the doctor did say “if at all possible,” and I don’t know how much they know about the details of your situation. Also, pediatricians aren’t infallible; they’re your kid’s doctor, and this seems like a bit of an overreach to me.

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If your day care is open and hasn’t had any cases, I would feel comfortable, in your shoes, sending my kid back there, especially as vaccines begin to roll out. If you can get her to wear a mask, even better.

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

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I’m a straight cis woman with two preteens, a boy and a girl. They are wonderful kids, and both have always been sensitive and emotional, which I love. My son is becoming more and more moody—understandable given his age—and I’m finding myself surprised by his defiant outbursts (again, understandable as they are).

My problem is how extremely triggered I feel by male anger. I have a history of abusive relationships with men, and I grew up in a very traditional family, where the men are the boss and the women do the soothing and placating. My parents are part of my kids’ lives, so they see this relationship model regularly. My father explodes, my mother steps in to smooth things over. His TV/radio/food choices are always the default.

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My son adores my father, and I’m seeing him replicate some of his grandfather’s behaviors. I’ve been a strong feminist since my early 20s, and I know I’ve come a long way. But in this case, I find myself going into an automatic tailspin trying to please and soothe my son. His anger makes me cry when I’m alone and feel utterly helpless when I’m facing it. I just freeze. I want to learn to do better here.

—I Love My Kids

Dear ILMK,

How incredibly painful it is when our kids force us to reenact the patterns that hurt us when we were children! The good news is that you’re aware of what’s happening. That’s a big difference, already, between your family and the family you grew up in.

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The bad news is that your parents are so present in your kids’ lives and that your son sees your grandfather as a role model. While you can’t change what he’s already absorbed, you can talk to him about how his outbursts make you feel and why. Without going overboard or deliberately making him feel guilty, you can make it clear that his rage is not OK, and that you won’t tolerate it. Then, follow through. Instead of placating, leave the room until he’s done raging. Don’t be an audience for his outbursts if you can help it. Say, “I love you, but I can’t be around you when you’re like this. Please come see me when you’ve calmed down, and we’ll talk about this then.” If you can get yourself to change, you can get him to change, too.

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— Emily

More Advice From Slate

How do I get my 4-year-old to stop tattling? I don’t know if it’s tattling exactly, but I feel like at the end of the day I get a full report of who followed the rules at day care (my child) and who did not (everybody else). I hear about who pulled hair, who was in timeout, who said something mean. I’ve tried saying, “Oh they’re still learning,” for a while. Lately I’ve been trying something like, “What’s something nice Jonnifred did today?” I don’t want my kid to feel like they can’t tell me the bad things that happen to them, but I also don’t want them so focused on other kids’ bad behavior. Is this a phase or should I be doing more?

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