If you’ve got a spoiled kid on your hands, you probably already know it. Brats throw tantrums at stores, hurl orders at their parents and are swimming in expensive toys and clothes. Right?
Actually, maybe not. The truth is that many of us stumble through a lot of gray areas in the raising-kids arena. Brattiness is one of them — it comes in many shades and colors, including the selfish, disrespectful and materialistic categories.
Just ask Dr. Sandy Shulmire, a clinical psychologist in Beaverton. “Many of my clients are caring, well-educated professional people who read a lot about child-rearing. Despite their best efforts, they still get in a pickle with their kids,” she said. “They’re not sure if their kids are going through normal stages of development or if they’re actually becoming spoiled.”
Sharon Silver, a parenting coach who regularly teaches classes in Portland, also answers lots of questions about so-called spoiled, or “entitled,” kids. She believes the proliferation of parenting books — many of which have conflicting advice — may be partly to blame. “Most parents I know just don’t have time to read all the books and cut across all the different methods,” said Silver, who recently moved to Arizona but still returns to Portland for coaching.
So we gave Shulmire and Silver a few common “gray area” scenarios and asked them: Are these children becoming brats? If so, what should a good parent do?
Our daughter doesn’t act bratty, but she definitely has more toys, clothes and gadgets than many of her peers. Is this a problem, or is our daughter just very fortunate?
A little of both. The experts says there’s no question that kids today have a lot more “stuff” than we parents had growing up. While you mean well when you give your child nice things, you also teach them that clothes and toys come to them effortlessly.
“When kids start demanding clothes or toys from you, or act like they deserve them because they’re your kids, they’re definitely moving into the ‘entitled’ territory,’ ” Silver says. “That’s when I suggest you start making them pay for half.
“Whether or not you can easily afford lots of things for your kids is not the point. I tell my kids: ‘I earned my money through hard work. What are you going to do to earn yours?’ ” Silver said.
My child is very bright and often interrupts adult conversations with his opinions. Is this normal for smart kids?
How much children should participate in adult conversations can be a cultural issue, Shulmire said. “In some families, everyone — including the kids — talks all the time, at the same time. Other families expect kids to be seen and not heard,” she said.
That said, Shulmire still thinks precocious kids need manners. She suggests developing a nonverbal signal so your child can get your attention if he has something to say. Don’t let him barge into the conversation — that is bratty behavior. “And be consistent. Don’t let your child interrupt you and your husband at home, then be surprised when he interrupts you in public.”
Our normally nice kid went ballistic after a friend’s birthday party. All the way home, he yelled that we should buy him the cool toy his friend got as a gift. Is he materialistic or plain old mad?
If this is a one-time deal, the culprit could be too much sugar and stimulation. Let him cool off. If it happens after more than one party, it’s time to step in. But even then, don’t assume your child is becoming spoiled, Shulmire said.
“It’s not unusual for younger kids, especially, to be a little jealous of the birthday child. That’s not brattiness,” Shulmire explained. Prepare your son before the party by talking about how it’s OK to feel a little jealous when someone else gets good things. If he’s sad when he gets home, hang out with him for a while so he can settle down.
Our 11-year-old daughter argues with us: “Why should I clean my room? It’s just going to get dirty right away anyway!” Is she mouthy or just going through a phase?
Both. Tweens and teens do sass Mom and Dad, said Silver and Shulmire. It’s a common way to check out their growing independence. So expect it — but don’t accept it.
“My favorite way of handling a kid’s talking back is silence. If you argue with them — ‘How dare you talk to me that way . . .’ — you’ve been sucked into a power struggle. That’s what they want,” Silver said. “Silence is enormously powerful. When you’re quiet, you put the ball back in their court.”
Unfortunately, it’s also age-appropriate for a 4-year-old to stick out her tongue and try to use naughty language with Mom and Dad. “In this case, too, I would be very quiet,” Silver said. “Then I’d ask, ‘Why do you think Mom (or Dad) is not talking to you? I want you to try again.’ The idea is to give your child information, then let them figure out how to fix the behavior.”
We suggested that our 5-year-old give some of his old toys to charity. He flatly refused and said, “The poor kids need to go get their own stuff.” I’m very disappointed.
“We often expect kids to automatically develop social graces. But they don’t. They have to be taught these things,” Shulmire said.
The fix? Shulmire suggests calling a family meeting and saying something like, “We’re thinking about doing some things differently in our family. We’re very lucky to have so many nice things. We’d like to talk about how we can share with others who aren’t so fortunate.”
Depending on your children’s ages, you might visit a local food bank or animal shelter so kids can see concretely how their money and donations make a difference. Also, talk regularly to kids about how kindness matters: “When you write a letter to Grandma, it makes her happy,” or “When you make cookies for our sick neighbor, it helps her feel better.”
Oh, and while you’re analyzing your child’s unpleasant behavior, take a second look at your own. Are you a conspicuous consumer or a chronic interrupter? Do you donate time or money to nonprofit organizations? “As parents, we need to examine our own lifestyle and choices. Our actions teach our kids a lot,” Shulmire said.