Q: My third-grader, who is 8 years old, believes he is always right. He starts arguments with everyone in his life, adults and kids. I fear he will have no social life. I try to explain to him that he doesn't know it all and needs to listen and learn from others. This does not help, and it seems to get worse the older he gets. If I say the sky is blue, he will say it is light blue. We told him the moon was not a full moon last night and he started a 15-minute argument with his 12-year-old brother. How do I handle this "lawyer" child?
A: The arguing child in the family is typically the oldest one, so your question surprised me a bit. The oldest child or the parents' usual "first experiment" is more likely to be over-attended to and over-empowered, and likes to keep his or her position of being an only.
Your son's situation is also different because he seems to argue even about factual information, rather than only about his opinions on certain matters. His tendency leads me to assume he is trying to prove his being smart to cover up any suggestion that he is not as smart as his brother. This could be caused by his being highly intelligent and having received a lot of attention for his "brilliance." Or it could be brought on by an older brother being very smart and historically trying to put his younger brother down for not being smart. It's good for kids to know that all members in the family are smart, and that it isn't a contest to prove who's smartest.
Another possible cause of the arguing is that the family has an overall argumentative style. Perhaps the parents don't argue as much as the boy but lots of topics become controversies, and your son takes his argument one step further for attention. I won't be able to guess at the exact cause without knowing more specifics about your family, so I'll turn to the most important part of your question: what to do about the problem.
You are absolutely correct that constantly arguing with friends will not endear your son to others. It's best for him to learn to discuss issues without encroaching on other people's right to listen and learn from others.
Here's my anti-arguing routine to avoid continued conflict about factual information. You can say, "Tell us why you think that's the case." Then listen to what your son has to say with full attention. If what he says make sense, agree with him and thank him for the correction, admitting you are wrong. If it doesn't make sense, you can say, "Please prove your point," giving him the opportunity to search the Internet or other sources for the answer. If he doesn't come back, you're done. If he finds support, you have another opportunity to model how to admit you're wrong. If he continues to argue without verification, you or his brother should walk away, saying that arguing is a waste of time. Or you can suggest doing something else.
When, if ever, you get the chance to admit you're wrong, do it graciously. Later, privately remind him that you didn't mind doing it and that being wrong didn't make you dumb. You could suggest he try it sometime, telling him it wouldn't feel that bad. You can explain that it would show his sensitivity to the feelings of others.
The most important parts of this approach are to model how you listen and learn from him if he's accurate, and admit to being wrong when you are incorrect. If you calmly walk away from arguments that don't make sense without letting him engage you, I think you'll get this problem licked.
Since your son loves to get attention by talking, he'd probably enjoy being in drama, debate, Model U.N. or other activities for speech-loving people. Most of these activities don't become available until middle school, but he'll probably benefit from them then. Also, when you notice improvement in the way he discusses differences, you might privately let him know that he's expressing himself skillfully.
For free newsletters about "Sibling Competition, Anti-Arguing Instructions, or Arts are Important," send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each newsletter and a note with your topic request to the address below. Dr. Sylvia B. Rimm is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the author of many books on parenting. More information on raising kids is available at www.sylviarimm.com. Please send questions to: Sylvia B. Rimm on Raising Kids, P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI 53094 or [email protected] To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.