There are few things more annoying than a mansplainer, whether it’s from a well-meaning spouse trying to explain something he thinks he knows better about, a colleague who seems to thrive off talking over women, or a stranger who can’t resist a good, old-fashioned ego trip.
Even though the term “mansplaining” was first believed to be coined back in 2008, the concept of a dude inserting his voice where it doesn’t belong has seemed to always exist. It’s only in recent years, though, that the impacts mansplaining has on girls and women of all ages has entered cultural consciousness at large. So now, what do you do as a mom when you notice your young son — sweet and big-hearted as he may be — becoming a bit of a mansplainer?
Before you start having visions of your precious baby boy being that guy in a board meeting in 20 years, don’t panic. For starters, going through a “know-it-all” period is actually very common among kids of all genders, as two psychologists explain to Scary Mommy. That means that not only will it likely pass in time, but you’ll have plenty of opportunities as a parent to encourage your son to communicate assertively as he grows up — without him turning into every woman’s worst nightmare.
The Psychology Behind Overconfidence
“It’s common for kids — especially young kids (around ages 4 to 8) — to be overconfident in their knowledge, skills, and decision-making,” explains Jessica Stern, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia’s department of psychology. “Because children’s brains are still developing, they may have trouble remembering how they know something or where they learned it. Many studies have demonstrated this ‘overconfidence’ phenomenon in children as young as preschool, and kids typically grow out of it.”
“Interrupting and trying to be right are common for kids of all genders, and in most cases is simply a phase,” Stern adds. “While I don’t think that young children are capable of ‘mansplaining,’ boys certainly pick up patterns of communication and messages about gender norms from parents, teachers, and peers from an early age.”
How to Recognize ”Did You Know?” vs. “Well, Actually”
So how can you prevent your son’s curious conversational style from becoming intrusive or inappropriate? Thankfully, there’s no shortage of ways to curb it and encourage his freedom of expression all at once, explains Stern. First, “it’s important to recognize the difference between your child’s genuine excitement about learning something new (a ‘Did you know?’ moment) and your child’s desire to compete or have power over someone else in a conversation (a ‘Well, actually…’ moment).”
“It is normal for children to be excited about what they have learned,” notes Newport Beach, California-based child, adolescent, and adult psychologist Aaron Montgomery, Psy.D. “Children are often eager to share their knowledge with others and at times can do so in a pressured and impatient way. In most cases this is due to their stage of cognitive development and not yet mature executive functions (i.e., the ability to effectively inhibit impulses and fully consider the impact of one’s behavior on others). As parents, these are opportunities to model and teach our children to express their excitement in more cooperative and thoughtful ways.”
“Genuine excitement can be nurtured further by sharing in your son’s excitement, adding your own knowledge to theirs in a respectful way, and cultivating their curiosity to learn more (‘Wow, that is so cool! I wonder if…’),” says Stern. “But in those ‘well, actually’ moments, avoid reinforcing the behavior with attention or escalating it with your own ‘no, actually’ response. Instead, reframe the situation as an opportunity to learn: ‘Hmm, I’m not sure about that, but I can tell it’s important to you. Do you want to find out together?’”
Keep Things Positive and Shame-Free
Montgomery suggests that parents “point out that you notice they are very excited about sharing what they have learned and tell them that this is a good thing. You can then let them know that the person they are talking to also has information they are excited to share. You can also remind your child that by listening to the other person, they may learn even more.”
As for what this looks like in practice, Montgomery suggests reinforcing turn-taking behavior, while waiting in line, at the dinner table, etc. . “This can even be formalized into a sort of ‘taking turns’ game — waiting to listen to the other person can be rewarded with a small prize. At home, practice with your child imagining what the experience of others might be like during different kinds of conversational styles in a playful way,” Montgomery adds.
Keeping things positive is crucial so that your son doesn’t develop a complex about his speaking style, and Montgomery recommends avoiding the term mansplaining altogether. The word itself “connotes and perpetuates a negative gender stereotype,” he notes. “It is preferable to use non-gendered and developmentally appropriate language when speaking with and thinking about child behavior. Consider using descriptions like excited explaining or difficulty taking turns. Using a pejorative term like mansplaining risks creating feelings of shame, a negative sense of self, or establishing an expectation that one should not share what one has learned; experiences parents generally wish to avoid. The goal is to reinforce the positive while also teaching more prosocial and adaptive strategies.”
Stern adds, “So often boys receive messages that they are not allowed to be vulnerable. Not knowing the answer, feeling ambivalence, asking for more information, and being wrong are forms of vulnerability that we all need to get comfortable with in order to learn and grow. Let your son know that it’s okay for him (and you) to not always have the answer — and that there’s joy in curiosity and seeking out new information from others, no matter what their gender.”
How To Know When It’s Become Mansplaining
“If a pattern of speaking over others and proving oneself right persists into adolescence or seems to target only certain genders, it may be important to have an age-appropriate conversation about sexism — what it is, and how it harms all of us,” says Stern.
That means it’s on you to be a role model for how you’d like your son to communicate, says Stern. Children are, after all, sponges, and will mimic behavior. So set ground rules about interrupting others, practice listening and asking follow-up questions and allow each person their say in a conversation.
“If you notice a gendered component to your son’s behavior (e.g., talking over girls specifically), it may be important to point out this pattern of behavior and emphasize the knowledge, wisdom, and experiences of girls and women in your son’s life (including in books and TV shows). It may also be important to expose your son to role models of respectful men, as well as powerful and knowledgeable women —Supergirl has great examples of both,” said Stern.
“Encourage the art of asking,” adds Stern. “The art of asking questions, showing curiosity, and genuinely listening to others’ knowledge perspectives is invaluable for boys becoming confident about what they know and don’t, while learning from and respecting others.”