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Brats are not born

by on Apr.24, 2010, under Behavior, Brat-Proofing, Character traits, Communication, Parent modeling, Parenting

In response to my recent appearance on the Today Show  – in case you missed it! —  a  woman wrote to tell me I was off base. She said that children are naturally brats and are naturally selfish.

While I would not be quick to countradict this mother  of 4 and grandmother of  11  who clearly has a lot of experience,  I  must say she is right and she is wrong.  She is correct: children are born selfish.  Infants and toddlers need to be selfish. That is, in fact, how they get their needs met.  They are responding to their own most basic of instincts — survival.   How else would we know to feed the child  if he didn’t cry out of hunger or relieve him from the discomfort of a soaked diaper?

But as the child grows, it is the parents who help to modulate that selfishness. As he learns that other people with feelings, needs, desires exist, so does the child learn to delay gratification and begin to consider others.  And slowly the parent helps to move the child out of his perceived place in the center of the universe to take his rightful place along the side with everyone else. Selfishness begins to subside.

But children are not born brats. No way, no how.

The whole point of my new book, You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing Your 4 to 12 Year Old Child, which is now available online and at bookstores everywhere, is how we keep our kids from becoming brats.  Children are not predisposed, not genetically nor biologically, to be brats.  They are born with the capacity to have all of those character traits that enable them to be competent, confident, terrific children and adults, satisfied and making their way in the world and able to handle what life throws their way…and not be brats!

This journey does not happen without a parent’s hard work.  Inculcating your child with the values you want him to take with him into adulthood, making manifest the character traits (for which he has the capacity) that enable a child to stay on track, with maybe only an occasional wrong turn, is part of a parent’s job, a big part.  And it isn’t easy at all.

Every parent wants to see her child happy in the moment. “I spend so little time with him, I hate to spend it in a fight.”  Or “I just can’t stand to hear him cry. It breaks my heart.”  These confessions I hear all the time.  But I am talking about the long haul.   Too often pleasing your child in the moment means sabotaging his growing ability to take care of himself and make himself happy in the big picture.  Sometimes loving your child means not pleasing your child and tolerating his unhappiness.  Parenting to brat proof is about making the hard call. It is also about clear communication, expectations, and the trusting relationship you have with your child. None of this happens by accident.

It is from parents and from experience that children learn how to be in the world, how to behave, and what is expected of them.  It is through practice on you that so much is learned.  As you well know, children save their worst behavior for the people whose love they trust the most…that’s you! So, unfortunately, likely you will see the brattiest of behaviors as your child figures out what works and what doesn’t.  It’s the experience he needs.   Actually, that’s the good news  because it gives you the opportunity to work on all those traits you want him to cultivate, the ones that must be caught and not just taught.

Don’t you want to run out and buy my new book? I hope so…and tell your friends, too!

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3 Comments for this entry

  • Matthew

    I’m definitely interested in picking up this book. So much of parenting is based on one’s paradigm: are people predisposed towards goodness or towards selfishness? A lot of this comes from various religious backgrounds, but also different perceptions of reality.

    At the end of the day – it does seem some kids are more “manageable” than others – I’m not sure they’re more or less selfish as much as they’re better at not irritating their parents.

  • Dana

    Hi Betsy,
    I’ve written to you offline to express appreciation for your books and how they have helped me.

    I had a question for you and not sure the best place to post it, but I know you can help.

    I keep running into the same issue with my 4 year old. He makes a big mess or treats his toys with disrespect, and I tell him to clean them up and treat them differently or else I’m going to take them away. He says, “fine” and doesn’t care one way or the other-i take them away or throw them away and he doesn’t care.

    That consequence is not meaningful to him and I need to come up with another one.
    My sitter points out it’s great that he isn’t attached to material things, but for me it is frustrating because I am trying to teach him to clean up after himself.

    I’m very aware of your advice that the consequence should fit the behavior. Meaning, if he doesn’t clean up his toys, the consequence should be something related to his toys, as opposed to “well, you can’t watch videos this weekend.”

    What does one do when the consequences for actions are things that your child doesn’t care about or see as consequences.

    Sometimes we move on to “well, then no reading before bed tonight” and that works, because that is time with mommy and daddy that he is missing out on.
    But we miss out too.

    Really, the goal is to teach him that we all need to contribute to the household and that means we all clean up after ourselves.

  • Betsy BB

    First of all, likely your child has too many toys, as do most kids! If he had only 2 trucks and one of them was up on the shelf, he wouldn’t be too happy. Rotate toys, so a full half of them live in the garage. When you remove a toy (b/c having a toy means cleaning it up), don’t get elevated. Just calmly say, “Oh, I guess you don’t want to play with this toy.” NO anger.

    Second, it’s not taking away the book time, it’s taking away YOUR time with him b/c you had to use your time cleaning up his stuff. Makes really good sense to me!

    You’re on the right track. I promise.

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