My friend’s child is a brat

He yells, he grabs, he kicks: Should I say something?

Topics: Since You Asked, Children, Parenting, children and anxiety, child,

My friend's child is a brat (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)


I have read your column for a long time, and I have a problem that I suspect is not unique to me, and am not sure how to proceed.

My friend has a kid.

The kid is almost 11. I’ve known the kid since he was almost 8.

The kid is a brat. I don’t mean occasionally overstimulated, whiny, badly behaved – every kid acts badly at times. I mean horrible, malicious, ruin-your-weekend kind of brat. The context where I encounter him is mostly formal activities that are led by his dad, my friend. Of course, these are activities I have paid to join, which adds insult to injury, or injury to insult, or something.

I do have fairly strict ideals for children’s manners and behavior, since I was raised strictly, and I’ve tried to allow for that, but I do think that this kid’s behavior is beyond any possible pale.

He needs to be the center of attention at ALL times, and whenever he isn’t (and sometimes when he is), he gets rude and bullying. He imitates my accent. He demands things like, “Why do you always have that look on your face? Why are you always blinking?” He deliberately mispronounces my name. Asking him to stop is pretty much like showing a red flag to a bull. Trying to redirect him to appropriate behavior, ignoring him … all just make things worse, and I don’t feel like I can actually scold him considering he isn’t my kid.  

He’s been rude and mocking pretty much since he was 8, but now that he’s a bit older, he’s also progressed to touching. Grabbing my hair. Poking me with his hand. Grabbing at my glasses to put fingerprints on them. Grabbing my possessions. He’s almost as tall as I am, so despite his youth, this is actually kind of scary. Last time I was trapped in a vehicle with him, he snatched my water bottle, and I lost my temper and snatched it back. His reaction was to scream “Child-hater! Child-hater!” at me for the rest of the car ride. At that point, I said something like, “No, I don’t hate children and I don’t hate you [I was sort of lying about that just then but, you know], but I don’t care for the way you’re behaving towards me today.” This had no effect, of course.

His dad, my friend/instructor, was driving the vehicle and did exactly nothing. I tried talking with him later. I was circumspect, like “sorry I kind of lost my temper at your kid, I’m not really used to kids … “

I was hoping he would say, “Yeah, he needs to learn how to interact with adults, I’ll talk to him.” What he actually said was something like “No big deal, you’re learning,” like I’m just not really used to kids because I don’t have any, but hey, I’ll get there.

But what I really felt like I was learning was that an 11-year-old can ruin my entire weekend trip, a trip I paid for, with his miserable behavior and I have no recourse? Ugh.

If this were a stranger, my reaction, especially to the touching, would be far stronger, but this is my friend’s kid …  and my friend doesn’t get that anything is wrong. I’m sure I’m not the only adult this kid disrespects or the only target of his bullying. It’s going to cause him problems in school and life if he doesn’t learn to act appropriately.

Is there any way at all that I can bring this up with my friend? It seems like a bad idea, if I want to keep the friendship, to tell him how I really feel. But if the situation continues, the friendship will end anyway, because I’m not willing to be in the kid’s company at all unless things change a lot, and therefore I will have to avoid my friend at any time when his kid might be with him, which is obviously fairly often.  Or is there some other option? Some way I can act around the kid that isn’t totally socially unacceptable but will just get him to leave me alone?

Tormented by Brat

Dear Tormented,

There is no such thing as a brat.

There are children who are out of control, who will lie to us and hit us and try to hurt us; there are children who will steal from us and make us uncomfortable, who will kick us and tug at our sleeve and scream and cry and smash things; there are even children who will try to kill us.

But there is no such thing as a brat.

When we call a child a brat we are saying that child is not acceptable to us; we are saying that we ourselves have reached our puny limits of endurance and compassion; we are saying that in our opinion that child is defective, that child should be separated from the rest and turned out into the forest or cast into the sea. That is simply an opinion that arises out of exhaustion, and it is wrong.

When we call a child a brat we are frightening that child because that child knows full well what we are saying; children who are called brats know that they are being called brats yet they cannot stop being brats because the category “brat” is foist upon them like a net and so they live with the terror of being smothered in that net and cast into the sea. They live with the terror of being locked in a cage. They live with the knowledge that they are displeasing their parents and teachers and they live with the constant foreknowledge of punishment and isolation.

It’s what the child is experiencing that matters. And that may be beyond our comprehension. It may be beyond our skill and knowledge; it may be a phenomenon that forces us to remember that we are only people, that we are not gods; that we do not create life or control life, we only pass life on from our loins to the earth, that we couple and bring children into the world and then we are baffled by who they are and what they want, and that our responses may at times have nothing to do with who they are and what they want, but since we are the stronger ones we can often afford to forget this and just say fuck it and kick the kid down the road or hit the kid or lock him up in a cage or send him to bed with no supper or give him some drugs that slow him down and make us more comfortable.

Give the kid some drugs that will make us more comfortable. That’s the height of our science and philosophy?

So I identify, personally, with this kid’s brattiness. I identify with his wanting to disrupt and intimidate. I identify with this kid. I want to bite you, too. I want to bite all the adults who in the face of worldwide starvation and murder and environmental destruction want a peaceful little picnic where everyone behaves. I am glad to see the occasional brat tipping over my picnic basket because the universe speaks to us through children, reminding us that our placid enjoyment of life is just denial, that my nice, middle-class picnic is an illusion, that the world is full of suffering and pain and it is calling out to us, through all the disruptive children and the bipolar adults and schizophrenics and outcasts and junkies and wanderers and homeless crazies shitting themselves on Market Street and all the other abandoned and outcast people: Through them, the world is telling us that all is not right, that we have much work to do, and that we are virtually asleep to our true condition.

It’s possible, also, that what is going on is in some way intended for you, as a signal, as an opening into some kind of insight, as a way of saying to you, Here is an opportunity for you to experience your own pain about childhood and your own beliefs about control, and to see how you yourself were taught control, and how painful that was, and how it involved, in  a sense, the sacrifice of your own childhood and your own innocent energy and sense of self and your right to express yourself and move freely; here is an opportunity to feel the pains in your body that are connected to your childhood, and to feel the anger that you live with day in and day out, and to acknowledge that behind your certainty and intolerance is grief for your own childhood.

I’m just guessing. I don’t know you. But I have strong feelings about the status of children in our society because I have seen children in a state of beautiful wildness, verging on chaos but a beautiful chaos, and I have seen adults shut them down as if the children were pets purchased in a bazaar. I have seen this and I have zipped my lip because I, too, am afraid in public to raise a hand and say this is madness, this is wrong, this child is innocent and just trying to work out something, trying to work out the impossible swirling chaotic energy of childhood, and this child is being restrained and possibly this child is lonely and hurt and out of control but the last thing the child needs is more disapproval and control. And at times like that I will think to myself: What the child needs is dirt, a ranch, a forest, some vast unenclosed space in which the child can exhaust himself and fall down and be spoken to by the wilderness.

I could be wrong. I’m just a guy who writes. But that’s what I hear. I hear a society that looks at its children as material resources cultivated for future use in its vast machine, and in its zeal to form these children into eventual usefulness implants in them ticking bombs that go off years later in high school cafeterias and suburban bedrooms. I see a society that codes into its children a set of shaded messages that later will erupt as disease, addiction, violence, depression and that sad attenuation of the noble spirit that we call the well-adjusted person.

I remember the terror and bewilderment of childhood; I remember my own hatred of restraint; I remember my dismay at the failure of adults to overcome their own cowardice and live in the moment where we children were happily living in glorious anarchy and delight. When I was a child I was living in the moment, as all children do, and I saw with dread the dull, gray world adults were living in and I did not want to give up my heart and soul to that world; I dreaded leaving the pure energy of childhood; I dreaded making the deathly compromises of adulthood; I felt sadness for what my parents and elders had given up, supposedly for us children, binding us to them with guilt and indebtedness for things that could never be repaid.

So what I fervently wish for you in this situation is that you can see in this child the raw wildness you remember from your own childhood, and you can see in your reactions the reactions you have been taught by a rigid and blind society, and that you can find in yourself some compassion for that wildness of the child, that angry, anarchic but true spirit.

That child is not a brat. That child is just a child. You have a chance here. You have a chance to confront something deep and timeless and maybe make a difference in the rest of your life, in how you treat other adults and children and how you treat that long-lost child in yourself that is crying out for recognition and love.

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