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How to Brat-Proof Your Child

Bratty kids. They bark orders, refuse to share--and are raised by clueless parents who have tons of money, spoil them rotten, and don't spend a minute on discipline, right?

Not necessarily. Even loving, attentive parents can wind up with a stubborn brat. "I've worked hard to prevent my 5-year-old, Tanner, from being greedy," says Kim Ratcliff, of Los Gatos, California. "So it was really discouraging to see him at a recent birthday celebration, with a party favor in one hand and a bag of candy in the other, screaming because I wouldn't go to the store to buy the toy the birthday boy got."

"Fortunately, typical bratty behavior is very curable," says Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too! and a Parents adviser. When a child behaves like Angelica on Rugrats, it's usually because such antics get her what she wants. But once those tactics stop working, she'll give them up.

Changing your child's behavior patterns requires determination, introspection, and patience; in fact, it takes at least three weeks to break a habit or establish a new one, Dr. Severe says. But taking the bull by the horns is worth it, because kids who are demanding and self-centered have difficulty making friends. And teens who've been overindulged as kids are more likely to use drugs, according to a study by Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., author of Too Much of a Good Thing.

Be prepared for your child to balk when you start being less lenient--but stand firm. If your child were about to stick his finger in an electrical outlet, wouldn't you do whatever was necessary to stop him? "What we do to protect a toddler from danger often makes him cry, but the dangers aren't as immediate when our kids are older, so we tend to give in more," Dr. Kindlon says. Here are five classic profiles of brattiness, along with expert advice about how to break the cycle.

  • You're getting ready to go out and your 4-year-old says, "I don't want Mrs. Lewis to baby-sit. She's boring! Why can't I come with you?"
  • Your 6-year-old says, "Why should I clean my room? It's my room, not yours. Besides, it's just going to get messy again."

How did it come to this?

You've gotten into the habit of giving too many explanations when you want your child to do something ("If you don't clean up your room, you won't be able to find anything"). As a result, he uses your tactics to try to overturn your rulings ("I know where everything is!"). When you cave, he learns that arguing works. However, this habit will make it hard for him to develop the self-discipline needed to do the things in life he'll have to do whether he wants to or not.

Brat-idote

Give clear instructions that don't invite negotiation ("Mrs. Lewis will stay with you while I go to the doctor's" or "You need to clean your room before you watch TV"), and then walk away. To make it easier to stand firm, come up with a standard retort to repeat in broken-record mode when your child protests ("In this family, everyone is expected to keep his room neat").

Making it stick

Avoiding debates with your child can be as tough as biting your tongue when your mother-in-law visits. At first, your child may argue more in an attempt to get the usual reaction out of you, but hang in there.

Payoff

When he sees that protesting no longer gets results, he'll start to believe that you really mean what you say--the first time.

  • You're chatting with other moms at the park when your 3-year-old says, "Stop talking!" and tries to drag you away to play.
  • At a family dinner, your 7-year-old interrupts the table talk to discuss her soccer exploits. How did it come to this?

You've done such a great job of telling your child how special she is that she thinks her rightful place is center stage 24-7. But if you drop everything to focus on your child whenever she demands it, she learns that her desires are more important than your needs (such as having an adult conversation that lasts longer than two minutes). "It's never too early to start telling your child, 'You're very important, but we're all important,' " Dr. Severe says.

Brat-idote

Your child deserves some of your undivided attention, but don't overdo it. Be clear about when your child is not allowed to interrupt you ("When you see that I'm on the phone, don't interrupt me"), and let her know when she can have your attention ("I'll find you as soon as I hang up. In the meantime, think of what you'd like to do when I'm done"). Look for opportunities to show her that other people deserve attention too ("That's very interesting, Sarah, but now we'd like to hear about Grandma's trip").

Making it stick

Taking the spotlight off your child doesn't mean that you have to ignore her, of course. Give her a heads-up when you're going to be busy ("My friend Susan is coming over, and after you say hi, I'd like you to play in your room until lunch so she and I can talk"). Teach her to say "Excuse me" when she does interrupt, and let her know what's urgent enough to warrant an interruption.

Payoff

Your child will learn basic social graces and develop an awareness of the importance of others.

  • Whether you're in the toy store or the hardware store, your 5-year-old will find something she's got to have.
  • You buy your 10-year-old a top-of-the-line skateboard, and two months later he's demanding an upgrade.

How did it come to this?

It's easier to give in and avoid a big scene than to say no and endure a meltdown. Or maybe you simply love to see your child's face light up when you buy him a gift, and now he expects to get whatever he asks for. Either way, you're doing him a disservice. "When you buy your child something to prevent a tantrum, all he learns is that he's got to scream to get what he wants," Dr. Kindlon says. And if you give him lots of things because you want to make him happy, it'll be harder for him to appreciate the gifts or the effort you went to. He's also robbed of the pleasure of anticipation that comes from saving up for a toy or waiting for his birthday.

Brat-idote

Prepare for difficult situations ("We are going to the toy store to buy a present for Cousin Seth. This is not a day we're buying anything for you"). If your child starts to make a scene, try to ignore him and go about your business. Make it clear when and what you're willing to buy for him ("A train set is something you can put on your birthday list"). Try to focus on simple pleasures and experiences rather than on possessions.

Making it stick

If you have trouble saying no, start by giving in to your child's requests in fewer situations.

Payoff

He'll get more enjoyment from the things he has. Receiving a gift will become special again, rather than something that's expected.

Manners & Responsibility: Answering the Phone
Manners & Responsibility: Answering the Phone

  • "I'm thirsty! Get me some water," your 8-year-old calls from her room.
  • When the puzzle won't fit together on the first try, your 4-year-old howls, "Mommy, come here!"

How did it come to this?

You've provided such wonderful service--keeping your child entertained and helping whenever she summons you--that she turns to you the second she's frustrated or bored. You may not have noticed that there are many things she's now capable of doing herself, such as zipping her jacket or setting up the play tent.

Brat-idote

"The only way to learn to tolerate frustration is to experience it," says Dr. Kindlon. So stand back and let your child cope a bit ("I'm busy right now, but I can help you after I finish cleaning the kitchen"). When you ask her to do things on her own, reassure her that she's capable ("I'll bet a girl like you who can go down the big slide is probably grown-up enough to butter her own toast"). Help her learn to entertain herself by limiting TV use and making sure she has some downtime every day.

Making it stick

When she comes whining to you and gets mad because you won't help her, give some verbal guidance. Suggest things she can do on her own (take out the modeling clay, or build a hideout under the dining-room table), or talk her through a problem she's having (sort the puzzle pieces by color, or look for corner pieces).

Payoff

You can go into semiretirement as your child's personal assistant. Not only will she feel more confident and capable, but she'll develop important qualities such as persistence, resilience, and resourcefulness.

  • Your 5-year-old says, "I told you I wanted a Barbie!" when your sister gives her a hand-knit sweater.
  • You make your 7-year-old tacos for dinner, and he says, "I hate tacos! Can't you ever make anything good?"

How did it come to this?

You might have assumed that your child is too young to truly understand how his words and behavior make others feel, so you've let inconsiderate behavior slide, simply telling him, "That's rude." But this policy may not be wise: "Kids are naturally self-centered, so they need to be taught how to be respectful, appreciative, and considerate," Dr. Severe says.

Brat-idote

Help him become aware of other people's feelings by encouraging him to put himself in someone else's shoes ("How do you think you'd feel if you spent every afternoon for a week making a present for Aunt Rose and she said, "This isn't what I wanted'?"). Refuse to tolerate disrespect ("I'll listen to you when you can speak nicely"), and show him a better way of making his point ("Thanks for making tacos, but they're not my favorite anymore. Could you make lasagna soon?").

Making it stick

Kids tend to say whatever pops into their head. You may have to call your child's attention to each instance of ingratitude and disrespectful behavior before he learns to apply the brakes himself.

Payoff

When your child learns to treat others better, he'll have an easier time making friends. He'll be someone with whom people--including you--truly enjoy spending time.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the November 2002 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.