Dear Brat Whisperer,
My girlfriend’s kids are spoiled brats, lack manners and discipline. My girlfriend is going away for 2 weeks tomorrow & asked me with. I’d love to but said no due to her 8yr old brat daughter & 10yr old brat son. 8yr old throws ashtrays at her mom & adults, tells mom to “shutup” & “I’ll watch TV whether you like it or not” and throws stomping tantrums. 10yr old opens car doors when driving if he does not get his way and bullies friends. She is getting divorced but her childrens’ brattiness is clearly a product of day one parenting that lacked boundaries. She says she is a fun mom and knows she is too soft, with a soon to be ex husband who left parenting to her and shouted at his kids. I have told her that her kids are brats and she did not like that, she is in denial I think but is obtaining help from a nanny type of helper to learn how to maybe discipline her children. I thought that going away for 2 weeks would be too much for me, spending all that time with brats. I am firm but fair and fun with kids & would not tolerate her kids’ brattiness. Am I right to not go away with them? Thanks, Ray.
That’s a tough situation. You probably made the right decision not to go with your girlfriend and her kids. It sounds as if those two are spoiled brats and your assessment of the situation is probably spot on. If your brat tolerance level is as low as it seems, I suspect the two week vacation would not have ended well. But, passing on the vacation is a short term solution to a long term problem. The larger question is, how will you deal with the spoiled brats issue moving forward in your relationship with your girlfriend?
The amount of time and energy you invest in addressing the bratty behavior depends on how invested you are in the relationship. If you are casually dating, then it’s probably not worth the pain and agony for you to get really involved in the brat problem. I had a friend who took the approach of simply planning the time spent with the girlfriend around the kids as much as possible and not getting involved at all in the child rearing. If, on the other hand, you see this relationship really going somewhere, then you are going to have to get in there and address it head on.
For starters, let me say this: you don’t have to be a parent to have a role and bear some responsibility in rearing and raising children as an adult in a child’s life. I am the parent of only one child but I have helped to rear and raise no less than a dozen kids in some form or fashion. If you’re in it to win it with your girlfriend, you’re going to have to establish your own adult-to-child relationship with the kids. This has nothing to do with you trying to be a father to the kids but it has everything to do with figuring out how you all can co-exist in the same space and ensure that spoiled brat issues don’t end up being the cause of a break up with this woman you care about.
Divorce is tough on children. Divorce is tough on everyone involved. But divorce cannot be an excuse for kids to behave like spoiled brats and not be held accountable for their actions. Life is always going to present tough situations. How we handle is a matter of character. This is a character building opportunity. It is also a moment in which you either create a different kind of relationship with these kids or perpetuate the type of relationship to which they have grown accustomed.
I’d suggest trying the following.
1. Get permission from your girlfriend to establish your own relationship and ground rules with each of the kids. This is important because, if you are going to deal with issues differently than your girlfriend, the two of you have to have an understanding about when she intervenes. This will be difficult for her but she has to be committed in order for it to work. And if you guys have disagreements, iron them out outside of the kids’ presence.
2. Don’t intervene in disagreements directly with her and the kids…unless you are asked to intervene. But influence what you are a part of. Let your girlfriend parent however she’s going to parent. But, for example, if you guys are all going somewhere together and say they speak disrespectfully to their mom but they’re playful and excited with you, leverage that and tell them, “I don’t hang out with kids who are disrespectful to their mothers. Apologize to your mom and then we can talk.” This will help solidify the fact that brat behavior is not acceptable.
3. Anticipate on the kids becoming, “bilingual.” This is a phenomenon we’ve all experienced in school. The teacher with high standards and tough expectations gets different considerations from kids than the teacher who is lenient without many expectations. Once the kids come to know your ground rules, if they like you and decide it’s worth the price because they also have fun with you, they’ll behave well with you one-on-one and still behave like complete jerks with their mother. That should be expected. You don’t necessarily have to call it out specifically, but leverage it for what it’s worth. (See suggestion #2)
4. Tie fun activities to good behavior. Too many adults squander reward opportunities with kids. If you’re going to take them to the skate park. Make it, we’ll go to the skate park after you do your chores. If they don’t have chores, make some for them. Kids need tasks to accomplish. When a friend of mine and her two kids lived with us for a few months her kids got their first taste of chores. They were 2 and 4 at the time. It was the Fall here. I took the kids outside and told them we had to rake up all the leaves out front from the tree. I’ll never forget the moment when the two year boy looked up and the tree, noted all the leaves and let out a deep sigh like he was ready to pass out. It was hilarious. Did I expect those kids to rake ALL the leaves in the yard? Of course not. But they had to feel as if they were responsible for accomplishing something. After we raked the leaves we went bowling.
5. Always, always keep your word when you promise consequences and don’t make threats you don’t follow-through with. Kids behave well with me because they learn very quickly that I say what I mean and I mean what I say. If I say you’re not going to watch that video until your pick up your toys, rest assured that you’re not watching that video unless your toys are picked up. If I say we will leave the park if you throw sand one more time, rest assured that we will leave the park if I see a grain of sand fly. But the beauty of this is that, I noticed what kids started to do with me is, no matter the setting, they waited until I told them the ground rules so that they knew what parameter they were working in. Once they knew, they ran off to play or whatever but they did it knowing the boundaries.
6. Acknowledge good behavior. Don’t be profuse in thanking the kid, just acknowledge it. That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t thank kids for doing things under normal circumstances. I thank my daughter all the time for things like doing the dishes and shoveling the snow (well, not really shoveling the snow because she never really shovels). But she already knows that doing those things are part of her responsibility as a member of our family and that she’s not doing me any favors, only what she should do. My daughter and I say please and thank you to one another without thinking about it out of consideration because that’s the relationship we’ve established over the years. But remember, what we’re discussing right now is correcting behavior, not what should be normal once a considerate relationship has been established.
For example, mom/your girlfriend comes home with groceries. If they go out to help bring the groceries in from the car, definitely acknowledge the positive action with a statement like, “good job helping your mom.” But there’s no need to go into a thanking rant like, “thank you so much Ryan. You’re such a good boy for helping your mom get the groceries out of the car!” First off, the groceries are for them to eat anyway! Thank him if he buys the groceries, not for helping bringing in what’s to his benefit anyway. He should be thankful to see food coming in the house. Second, the kids should not be under the impression that you are grateful whenever they lift a finger. Kids SHOULD be lifting a finger, not only to help their mom but to help maintain the home. At a minimum, this means picking up after themselves and helping their parents or other adults when requested. So, to that end, acknowledge but don’t imply gratitude for what should be expected.
I commend you working with the situation Ryan. I’m sure with some diligent work, the kids will see you for the firm but fair and fun guy your are and you will develop a great relationship with both kids. Make it a goal that you will join them on the next vacation and fun will be had by all!
Best of luck.