Parent-to-Parent: Is Your Child a Brat?

BRAT really is the four-letter word of parenting; it’s every mother and father’s nightmare. Most parents can accept, albeit sometimes reluctantly, that their little angels have a devilish side. But bratty-ness, like bullying, is often met with outright denial.

“I’m not sure I know any child that could be called a brat, carte blanche,” says Kari Norman, a Toronto mother of three kids under 10 (and expecting a fourth). Most behavioral ‘problems,’ she says, are actually typical for the age of the child, or rooted in something affecting the child’s life (like parental separation), or part of the inherent temperament of the child — “though none of these mitigating factors make bad behavior less annoying.”

Celine Nadreau, a mother of two under-10 kids from Gatineau, Que, agrees: her definition of a brat is a child who is uncontrollable in public. “If a simple errand to the grocery store turns into a tantrum,” she says, “you’ve got a brat on your hands.”

What to do? Celine points to daycare providers as terrific knowledge resources, “They’ve seen it all!” and adds that if you can swallow your ego enough to ask other parents for advice, everyone, without exception, will have a tale to tell.

In terms of reading, Norman recommends Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (2005), and Nadreau The Discipline Book: Everything You Need to Know to Have a Better-Behaved Child From Birth to Age Ten, by Dr. William Sears (1995).

Last year, my wife and I embarked on an intersection of the strategies of reading and advice-seeking when we joined a free twelve-week program called “The Incredible Years,” sponsored by the City of Toronto. Don’t let the overly enthusiastic title fool you: the program is for parents who feel that they are experiencing above-average difficulty with Junior—for us, our at-the-time four-year-old son.

The company’s mission statement tells it like it really is: “The Incredible Years are research-based, proven effective programs for reducing children’s aggression and behavior problems and increasing social competence at home and at school.” Good for so-called brats? You betcha.

I can’t deny that I was initially skeptical. At times the open-group conversation was tedium defined, and the staged parent/child behavior videotapes, legit ’80s artifacts, didn’t exactly scream credibility. But I was a convert by program’s end.

Instead of problem solving, TIY addresses relationship building; the first six weeks were spent on the topic of how parents relate to children. The idea here is that when it’s time to discipline (covered in the second six weeks), the foundation of consistent communication is in place. And it really does get easier, faster—at least, the dozen-or-so parents in our group agreed this was case, unanimously.

Most of the discipline drills involve common sense: establishing boundaries beforehand, giving a countdown before disciplining (because what seems like children’s pattern of ignoring is actually a case of the words not sinking in as quickly as parents assume), and remaining calm at all times—including the point of ending the discipline and releasing the children to once again play, frolic, and potentially aggravate.

James Grainger, a Toronto father of one teen, taps the above-mentioned common-sense idea of establishing boundaries with children, in advance of potential difficult situations. His young daughter wrought havoc on shopping excursions.

“Candy, book, hardware — It didn’t matter what kind of store it was, she could not leave the store unless I bought something for her.” Logic, not surprisingly, did not work: James says that she tried “every trick in the book to reel me in.” The solution? He would explain the purpose of the shopping visit before entering any and every shop. In the event that they actually were shopping for his daughter in the first place? “I carefully outlined her purchasing and price options and warned her that if she tried to drive up those price points, there was a good chance she’d walk out of there with nothing at all.”

And if you happen to be on the other side of a tantrum, Norman advises, “As a bystander, you might think you see a child acting bratty. But for your own children, or other children you know well, you see so many different facets of their personalities and you understand there is a background; it’s much harder to categorize them as being a ‘brat.'”