Are you raising a BRAT?

Are you raising a BRAT?

No one teaches a toddler to fling his food around or refuse to go to sleep – it all comes naturally. Isn’t nature wonderful? And if we want good behaviour, concern for others, and self-discipline, then we have to teach it.

A piercing shriek cuts the air like a chainsaw through candyfloss. Deep, primal terror grips the hearts of all within earshot. With the echoes still ringing in their ears, the frightened spectators back away. Cold and merciless eyes gaze at them. A terrible smile spreads slowly across twisted features, as the fiend prepares to vent the full force of his fury. Only one person can save them now – but the three-year-old’s Mum is way over by the frozen foods, and she’s trying to pretend nothing is happening …

What is it with some people? Take Steve Hardy. He’s 187cms, he weighs 110 kilos, he’s the foreman of a demolition crew, and he’s Dad. Now look at Cheryl Hardy. She’s 170cms, sharp-witted, the meanest squash player in her office, and she’s Mum.

But then there’s Samuel Hardy … 

He’s 73cms. He weighs less than a bag of potatoes. He knows most of the alphabet, although not in the right order. And he can’t count past 10. But he’s definitely got his parents’ number. You see, in this family Samuel is boss. Actually, he’s The Boss! Mentally and physically he may be dwarfed by his parents, but there’s no doubt about it – in most other ways he’s in control. With just one teensy little tantrum, this little treasure can up-end any dinner party, embarrass an entire extended family, or turn any shopping trip into Nightmare on Queen Street.

Steve and Cheryl are kind of worried that he “might be turning into a spoiled brat’’. Might be? Their friends and relatives are sure of it!

Now, okay. We all know that every kid throws a wobbly now and then. And there can be lots of reasons for less-than-perfect behaviour – over-tiredness, hunger-pangs, a bit of a cold, lack of attention … 

So how are we meant to know if we’re raising a spoilt brat, or just coping with a strong-willed kid who’s having a bad day? And if our household is caught in the grip of Attila the Tot, what can we do about it?

Well, we’ve managed to scrape together a few key points that may help. That is, if you like the idea of polite, kind, considerate children who share their toys with everyone in sight, and wouldn’t dream of throwing a tantrum when the grandparents visit. Sound too good to be true? Well, read on … 

What is a spoilt brat, anyway? Most people picture spoilt brats as overweight kids who always answer back, own all the latest kiddie-gadgets, and don’t understand the word “No!” And, actually, that’s a pretty good picture. But there is a bit more to it.

On Day One, Sara Laing gazed out from her cot and saw the Universe revolving around her. This Universe consisted of a Disney mobile hanging just out of reach, and one or two parents always within reach. But, of course, what Sara saw was a bunch of small fuzzy blobs that didn’t seem very useful, and two big fuzzy blobs that moved a lot more and brought her everything she needed. Things were great – because Sara was the Centre of her Universe.

But a year or two down the track, Sara’s Universe had grown. And she’d begun to learn one of life’s toughest lessons – the Universe now revolved around lots of other people as well. Oh, it took a bit of getting used to. Mum wouldn’t drop everything to play Lego five minutes before tea-time. And if Sara wanted to play with Toby Miller’s toys, she had to learn to share her toys with him. But this ‘sharing’ thing was a major discovery – if she did it right, it was like owning twice as many toys!

Spoilt children have yet to learn this lesson. Since they believe they’re the centre of everyone’s universe, it’s natural for them to expect people to jump when they say jump. But even if Mum and Dad will put up with these sorts of demands, you can bet-your-bottom-dollar colleagues and friends in later life won’t!

However, it doesn’t just stop there. These ‘non-compliant’ kids are often reinforced in their selfish beliefs by parents who make them too precious – like the couple we heard of recently who couldn’t persuade their child to go to bed, so they never went out! If parents put the kids before everything else, they teach the kids to become takers not givers. And despite getting everything they say they want, these kids are never happy for long.

We may not want to say this in front of his mum and dad, but Samuel Hardy is rude, selfish and disobedient – because he knows he can get away with it. You see, he’s tested his parents since Day One, and he knows exactly how far he can go: ALL the way! Even if he does get told off eventually, the attention is usually worth it.

Sara Laing, on the other hand, is starting to learn that her parents are concerned with other stuff as well as Sara Laing. She doesn’t always get centre-stage, but she doesn’t mind too much. And she understands that while her mum and dad love her, they don’t always give her exactly what she wants. She’s getting a feel for where she fits in the family.

But hang on – what’s wrong with allowing a child a few indulgences? Well, nothing. The problem is overindulgence. A child who’s been raised well becomes an independent, self-disciplined, loving adult. One who will joyfully provide and care for parents in their twilight years, showering them with holiday cruises and new cars. 

Well, maybe not … but you know what we mean.

With such a clear goal, successful child rearing should therefore be easy. And it would be, if it wasn’t for the major stumbling block that all parents eventually whack their shins on: children are not born with the basics of good behaviour instilled into them.

No one teaches a toddler to fling his food around or refuse to go to sleep – it all comes naturally. Isn’t nature wonderful? And if we want good behaviour, concern for others, and self-discipline, then we have to teach it. 

Of course, a few extras don’t do any harm – but overindulgence can be disastrous. Overindulgence has taught Samuel Hardy, for example, that things don’t have to be worked for. Unless you consider a five minute tantrum ‘work’.

Some children are classy little pros when it comes to misbehaviour. They regularly scream for attention – and get it! They can make Mum feel guilty at the drop of a hat. They can win a family power-struggle with one hand tied behind their backs. Or they can get just about anything done for them by acting soooo helpless. No question about it: these kids are in control of the household, since the household must revolve around them in order to satisfy all their demands. They are (you guessed it) spoilt brats!

Children misbehave for four main reasons: to get attention … to challenge parents’ authority (and gain power) … to seek revenge … or because of helplessness (the result of overprotective parents).
Too much attention can ruin character – but so can too little. 

When young Darryl got into a punch-up with his younger brother in the living room, Dad was quick to give them all the attention they were after – and more! But there was little praise for the pair an hour earlier, when they’d been playing quietly all afternoon. By misbehaving, the pair had at least got Dad to notice them.

Sure, it’s often hard in the middle of a busy day to notice and praise kids when they’re being good, and not just when they’re being bad. But a bit of healthy attention can cut down on attention-seeking.

Spoilt brats are also experts at winning power-struggles with their parents. When Mum told Natalie to pick up her toys, the youngster refused. And, despite her mother’s pleas plus the threat of time-out, Natalie would not be moved. In the end Mum picked up the toys up herself – and wee Natalie won a passive battle for power.

And as for little kids getting revenge … Mandy was told she couldn’t watch TV because she had to have a bath. She complained loudly, but still ended up waist-deep in soapy water. Mandy was old enough to bath herself, but suddenly she decided she’d forgotten how to do it without Mum. Bath-time usually lasts 10 minutes – but that day it lasted 40. 

Mandy grizzled, screamed, kicked and squirmed. The floor was soaked, the towels were soaked, and Mum was soaked. Clever Mandy had managed to make bath-time a bad experience for her mum – and was quietly confident she wouldn’t miss her favourite cartoons again.

Spoilt kids often play on being helpless. And children like Rod always need others to do things for them. “Mum, where’s my football?” … “In your room, where you left it.” … “It isn’t, I looked.” … “Am I going to have to go in and find it for you?” … “But I need it now!” … “So what do you call this? It was right under your nose!”

There are several lessons here for Ross. He’s learning that he’s hopeless, he is learning over-reliance on others, and he’s learning how to spoil someone else’s day.

It is dangerous for kids to rely too heavily on others – they need to learn to make decisions themselves. Our society’s rules and boundaries are changing all the time. And, more than ever before, kids need to know how to think through the facts and then decide on a course of action. Teenage years put this learning to the test – when they’re suddenly faced with decisions about sex, drugs, alcohol, fast cars and acne cream. (Acne cream is the only one they always get a second or third chance with!)

We should try to teach our kids the importance of consequences – and not shield them too much. It was Isaac Newton who said, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction!” And it’s a safe bet that his Mum had taught him about consequences: “If you sit lollygagging under that apple tree all day, young Isaac, don’t come crying to me when you get brained by a Red Delicious!”

Don’t protect your child from all the consequences. For instance, if Natalie leaves her toys out in the rain, it’s okay for Mum to pick them up once or twice and remind the child about bringing in her toys. But if carelessness with toys becomes the norm, then it may be time to leave her toys to fend for themselves. When Natalie comes out in the morning and sees the damage done to her new Barbie-doll, she may learn the consequences of her actions.

Obviously, it pays to use a bit of common sense when choosing your ‘consequence lesson’. For example, don’t let your kid discover the consequence of setting fire to the carpet. Or of drinking all the bottled fluids in the house at once.

And ensure there’s also a positive side to consequences, some rewards for good behaviour – like increased trust, a few extra privileges, and more responsibility. Unspoilt children are taught to deal with small amounts of responsibility as their age allows. This means doing chores they don’t get paid for – like keeping their room tidy. And facing up to a teacher after fighting in the classroom – without Mum there (complete with a skirt to hide behind).

If a child is given too much help with homework, let off his chores or allowed to quit activities or clubs she “really wanted to join” two months ago, then chances are he or she won’t learn the stickability needed for a successful adult life.

A true brat can make life hell-on-earth for two parents. A pint-sized paddy-thrower can make Mum and Dad feel rotten, angry, hurt, frustrated, guilty, desperate, and sometimes quite violent. But invariably these are the same two parents who continue to spoil their child!

The obvious question is WHY? Why do they do it?

Many parents who had it tough as youngsters try to over-compensate by lavishing love, kindness, and Xbox games on their little darlings. Their motives are good – after all, children are very precious. But, often, all this giving is thrown right back in the parents’ faces. The kid gets the message that “Everyone wants to please me!” And, sooner or later, he turns that into a weapon: “Please me – or else!”

Parents who need to put their kids in daycare are often tempted to indulge them (to make up for the lack of parenting during the day). It’s a toughie – but they need to remember the good things about daycare. It’s not a prison-sentence where the kids are fed dry bread and water, and forced to break rocks all day. They have fun in there. And they learn to socialise with other kids (hopefully). So they don’t really need the added bonus of being spoilt silly when Mum and Dad get home.

Now, sure. It’s kinda nice to slip the kids a bribe here and there for good behaviour when they’re on show. After all, how a child looks and acts can be a big part of Mum and Dad’s self-esteem. Face it: a child is the most important work of art a person will create in his or her lifetime – and we all want to create Van Goghs. But it needs to be kept in balance. Jimmy may be a work of art, but he needs to know he’s not the only masterpiece on the gallery wall.

Valuable qualities like respect, honesty and unselfishness must be taught – children aren’t born with them. And the way our kids learn good behaviour is through loving limits. Children feel secure when they know what’s acceptable and what’s not: “If I’m rude to Mum there’ll be a price to pay!” And parents need to back each other up when it comes to setting those limits and deciding on discipline. Discussions about this are best ‘not in front of the kids’ – but after junior’s bedtime.

Setting limits takes courage – as does dealing with the resulting tantrums! – and parents often need support: an ally who can talk things through and offer advice.

When her son refused to go to sleep, Sandra, a single mum, endured two long years with less than three hours shut-eye a night. She’d been told to leave him to cry – to put a stop to his demands for attention – but, without support, she simply couldn’t resist the little guy’s tears. Eventually, she found an older, experienced mentor who encouraged her, and Sandra got the strength to leave the boy until morning. After just one night his bedtime pattern was transformed – and they’ve both slept through almost every night now for the last five months.

Parents are easily confused about setting limits. Some fear they’ll destroy their child’s creativity if they say “This far and no further!” But other parents genuinely believe they need to be ultra-strict on their kids. So where’s the happy medium between too soft and too hard? Well, it really depends on the age of the child. For example, a baby shouldn’t be disciplined for refusing to eat – but a toddler can be expected to eat his meals without too much fuss.

There’s no danger of spoiling a BABY – and at this stage all the youngster needs to learn is that his parents can be trusted to look after him. His crying is to let you know something’s wrong – so if constant crying becomes too much, find a friend or family member who can give you a break.

PRE-SCHOOLERS, on the other hand, are forever on the lookout for new discoveries. Anything they can touch, pull, poke and feel is just lovely. 

While it’s tiring to find Zoe sorting through Mum’s make-up or playing in the pot-cupboard, it’s important to remember: this isn’t naughtiness so much as exploring. (Although that changes, of course, if she’s been told clearly time and time again to stay out.)

A few, very simple limits can (and should) be set on a pre-schooler’s behaviour. For instance: don’t touch power points … don’t pull the dog’s ears … and don’t pinch your baby brother. But it shouldn’t all be “don’ts”. Pre-schoolers can begin making decisions – “Do you want to wear red socks or blue socks?” They can begin learning the importance of sharing (although this won’t come overnight), and they can start doing simple things for themselves. (Whether it’s getting dressed or baking a cake, they’ll soon insist: “Me do it!”)

SCHOOL-AGE KIDS should be well-acquainted with making simple decisions allowed by their parents – and with accepting consequences for their actions. By age 12 they should be able to help look after younger siblings, tidy up their toys and books, and be helpful around the house – without payment! (Yes, kids like this actually exist!)

When junior starts refusing to behave in an age-appropriate way, then it’s time to set limits. Children learn good things at school – but the behaviour they learn at home is the most important education they’ll ever get.

Loving-but-firm limits let everyone know who’s in control. Even a one-year- old needs to know you’re the boss. Having a parent around who is there “guiding and correcting” rather than “leaving and allowing” provides kids with security. But when Mum and Dad are reluctant to take control, the kids are left wondering who will.

Remember: there’s a huge difference between kids just being silly and kids being openly defiant. If Tony breaks something it’s often treated as a far more serious offense than when he tells his mum to “shut up!” But, chances are, the breaking was an accident – the result of him fooling around or being clumsy. Yes, it may require some consequences – but it’s not as serious as telling a parent to “shut up”. This defiance challenges a parent’s place as ‘boss’ in the home.

Spoilt brats are kids (little or big) who are out to gain control of the household, and it’s important to check such behaviour. And to make limits effective, discipline is sometimes necessary. But discipline can be more than a punishment. It can be a hug, too. In fact, it’s anything which helps mould the character of the child towards good behaviour.

Discipline is not something we do TO children – it’s something we do FOR them.

Don’t forget to praise your kids when they get it right. Children soon discover that they’re almost guaranteed attention when they misbehave. So work hard to create a balance – make a point of letting them know you’re proud of them just for playing quietly, or sharing toys, or tidying up.

Discipline should be firm, loving and calm – nothing is gained by arguing, nagging or screaming.

Try this little technique: the next time your kid misbehaves, give her some ‘time-out’. Send her to her room for two or three minutes – one minute per year of age for older children. It’s a good way of disciplining without creating a scene.

A loss of privileges, such as not being allowed to ride the bike, is another good form of loving discipline (but put the bike out-of-reach in case she’s tempted to have a quick go while no-one’s looking!).

And most important: expect good behaviour – don’t beg for it! You need to earn and keep the respect of your children. Rewarding good behaviour shows that it’s noticed and appreciated, but nevertheless expected. Spoilt brats, on the other hand, have no respect for anyone in authority: giving ‘chocolate incentives’ beforehand – literally bribing kids to be good – sends a clear signal that they’re the ones in control.

Finally, the best things in life are caught – not taught. Children are like hungry little sponges. They soak up their parents’ behaviours and attitudes. They notice things like consideration for others … or the lack of it!

It’s good to expect our kids to share their toys – but do they ever see Mum and Dad sharing things with other adults? Four-year-old Danny’s Tonka Truck is as close to his heart as his dad’s car is to him – but it’s unlikely Dad will share the BMW with other people in the carefree, cheerful way Danny is expected to share his toys. If a new appliance is brought home, do the kids know about the saving and planning that went into the purchase? If they don’t see and hear their parents talking about money as a scarce commodity, how can they be expected to know that money doesn’t grow on trees?

When Jane’s parents were wondering whether to buy a new TV, she heard them talking about the possibility on and off for weeks beforehand. She went around the shops with Mum and Dad, and saw the different prices on each one. Her father told her, “You never take the first price you see …” After more than a month, the new set was finally settled on – and Jane had learned a valuable lesson about money. She wasn’t yet ready to take on the stock market, but she did know that new TVs don’t just appear in the living-room by magic.

And if your little guy sets his heart on a new toy, perhaps a timetable of extra household chores could be worked out so he can earn it – rather than Santa arriving early this year.

Remember: kids are people. Okay, they’re very short, they think mud is fun, and they’re sure that 90 seconds is almost half-a-day. But they’re still people – they aren’t a different species.

Hey – you’re a former kid yourself! So don’t be afraid to talk with them. Really talk. Not just, “What did you do today?” Go deeper: “Did you enjoy that?” … “Why?” … “Did your friends have fun, too?” It’s your big chance to find out what makes junior tick. And you may discover that a period of scrappy behaviour is caused by an incident at school, or the loss of a friend – and not because you’ve been bringing him up wrong!

Children don’t drop out of the sky with a lifetime guarantee tied around their ankles. Some parents who do all the right things – teaching, training and disciplining with buckets full of love – will still see their offspring go off the rails.

But way back in the year 1 BC the Roman poet Horace observed: “New vessels will long retain the taste of what is first poured into them.”

No, there aren’t any foolproof formulas for child-raising. But, hopefully, the love you ‘pour’ into your little ones will still be ‘sticking to the sides’ in the years to come!  

Keepers of the Vine