House of Brats.

by Leslie Morgan Steiner


When I was 11 I started my babysitting career. I earned 75 cents an hour. I was unusually responsible for my age and eager for business. Soon enough, I took care of kids at every house in the neighborhood, babysitting three or four nights a week. The kids were great. I loved the free ice cream snuck from every freezer on the block.


But there was one family I never forgot. I’d never met them before that night, but the mom got my number from a neighbor. They lived in a little house directly across from our small red brick elementary school. Three kids ages 4, 8 and 10. The mom was harried, the house messy. Mom looked at her wristwatch and left for an evening meeting almost as soon as I walked in the door, without giving instructions or showing me around the house.


Three hours of complete and utter chaos and high decibel panic followed.


The children were insane. They screamed and ran around the house. Pulled my hair. Hid. Farted in my face. Threw toys at me. Worst of all, the four-year-old repeatedly unlocked the front door and ran out into the night, shrieking and laughing. When I got angry and tried to discipline them, the two older kids laughed at my fear and frustration.


At first I felt like crying. Then I felt like calling the police. I never got them in pajamas, much less in bed. I was in pure lockdown survival mode the entire time. By the time Mom came home, I felt as harried as she looked. Then I did something I’ve never done before or since: I quit. I refused her money and told her I would never babysit for her children again. Ever. They were too much for me.


I now have that family.


This unpleasant revelation came recently when a company hired me to give a few speeches at a fancy resort in Mexico, all expenses paid for myself and my husband. Five days in Cabo in November. Alone. Woohoo!


The only problem: who could possible survive five days alone with our three children, ages 12, 11 and 7?


It was a daunting proposition. We wracked our brains for hours and came up with the only conceivable solution: importing my mother-in-law from New Jersey. She loves us, she loves our kids, and no matter what happened, she would not quit. She dutifully came, especially after we explained that this trip had the potential to extend our marriage five years. We hired a phalange of babysitters and housekeepers to help, and enlisted friends to drive our kids’ to soccer practice.


And still. Nothing could stop the infighting that plagues our family behind closed doors. My cell blessedly did not work in Mexico, but my husband’s phone rang fairly constantly. Invariably there was a screaming, crying child at the other end. The apex came on Saturday, which as usual was jam-packed with a disastrous mix of soccer games, play dates and birthday parties. Our middle child became a whirling dervish of hate because of some conflict over computer time. Our oldest, normally a quiet, sweet boy, exploded and called her the b-word and told her to f-off. At the top of his lungs. In front of my mother-in-law.



Disclaimer, I have small children and don't yet know what it's like to have bickering older ones. But that said, we had some behavioral problems with our older child and I found myself constantly yelling with no change in her behavior -- just an angrier me. I was at my wits end until I happened upon this book: The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child by Alan Kazdin. His method works. First, he divorces behavior from the reasoning behind the behavior. For example, perhaps your children fight because they are jealous. Eliminating the jealousy may or may not eliminate the fighting. His method focuses altering the behavior (the fighting). You deal separately with the whys. It's worked beautifully for us and he has case studies in his book that deal with children as old as 16 years of age. I suggest it -- if it doesn't seem like the end all be all tool, at least you have another weapon in your arsenal on how to address the fighting!


Oh gosh but you make me appreciate my son being a lonely only:)

I'll give you my grandmother's secret though for raising 5 kids and 7 grandchildren. It takes two to fight and it doesn't matter who started it. Everybody fighting gets spanked. I have to admit, it did keep us from fighting in the house where she could catch us. And as tattling worked the same as fighting, when we lit into each other in the back 40 where we thought we wouldn't get caught, the looser didn't go crying to grandma after the tussle was done.

leslie morgan s...

Leslie Morgan Steiner

Great advice, Sarah! My favorite is to invoke their friends' strictest moms. "Do you want me to be like that?" They run screaming with horror and gratitude. "No Mom! We'll be better!" It usually gets me a day or two.

sarah f.

I find that the point of the fighting (and the tattling and the bickering and the poking) is to involve the parents. My solution is to become un-involved. "I don't care" and "It's not my problem" are my favorite phrases. At the other end of the spectrum, "Come up with a solution together or I'll come up with one for you" is a dreaded phrase at my house. Fighting over the TV? It's closed. Tattling on your brother? you're both losing privileges. Demonstrate anything less than outstanding manners in front of your grandparents? Kiss that weekend sleepover goodbye. My goal is to make myself the common enemy, against whom they need a united front to avoid bad consequences. So far, so good about 85% of the time. And they're 7, 10, 11 and 13, so we're definitely in the same zone!

leslie morgan s...

Leslie Morgan Steiner

Narumichar -- What you said about jealousy is incredibly insightful and oh so true.

I'm not 100% sure how to make my kids feel less jealous of each other but have the feeling that really is the answer.



My final thought to the bickering between the kids is that every time I have experienced it as a mother, as a peer, as a counselor- the root of it was jealousy. People tend to pick apart other people that they are jealous of as adults, as children, especially as hormonal teens. My boys don't fight with each other, partially due to a 7 year age spread... BUT my oldest (who was only child/grandchild for quite a while)can really lash out at his cousins who are closer in age if he feels he being pushed to the side or disregarded because he's "older and should _______." I don't know how this translates into something you can do in your life and family individually; it is something to think about and maybe talk about with your children individually.


I am going to start with one HUGE disclaimer, try as I might I do not have kids...YET. However, looking back on my pre-teen and teenage years the one thing my mom did right was implement discipline. No matter how I begged when the consequence was handed down I had to do the time, all of it. I notice that most moms understandably have a hard time with this, just as my mom did, but it made a difference. Not a total miracle cure, I was still a brat at times.

leslie morgan s...

Leslie Morgan Steiner

Narumichar...I am so with you...and CCD works on manners, cleaning up their room, doing homework, etc. Except my methods (similar to what you describe) fail UTTERLY when it comes to the kids fighting with each other. They cannot seem to resist. I have seen them fight over a dirty dishrag. The only thing that stops them (temporarily) is being sent to their rooms (again and again). the worst is the fighting in the car. "Stop touching me! He's touching my foot! AHHHH" as if they might die any second. No idea how to stop the ceaseless bickering.


Consequences, consistency, and discipline: the only way my parents got through my thick skull, and I got through my boy's thick skulls. Bad attitude? I blame the "poor influences of TV media" and BAM no screen is on in front of them for 48 hours. That one worked quick. Bad manners? Time for an intervention/seminar/manner boot camp before they can see friends (playdates and being around other people require that they know and practice good manners, after all). Bad language? No computer, phone etc for 48 hours- they must have been exposed to it somewhere, and if they cannot control their urge to duplicate the behavior, they need to unplug from possible sources and bad examples. I always tell the boys that if they don't like the consequences, then they are free to make their own rules once they pay their own rent and living expenses. And if they are bored with nothing to do an no privileges... they can always start reading Emily Post, ha ha. ;) This is what works for me, anyway.


If you find a solution please let me know! My daughter is 14 and my son is 11. They fight from the minute the wake up until they go to sleep at night. They have since they were old enough to speak. I am a pushover, so I know I don't help matters. Thank you for letting me know I am not alone in a "house of brats!!!"