Cultural Differences: What Makes A Brat

Sometimes, amongst colleagues and friends we’ve made as adults, we talk about what we were like as kids. Were we cautions, or adventurous? Were we sporty, or were we indoor types? Were we country mice, or city rats? Were we bratty, or were we calm and respectful? This last question is one that is harder to answer. Most adults don’t think they were brats, even if they were, unless their parents tell them they were. In my case, it is an even harder question to answer. My mother, and her side of the family, love to reminisce about how much of a brat I was, my mother with resignation, the rest of the family with awe for my mother for putting up with me, tinged with some condemnation of my mother for allowing me to be a brat in the first place. My father, and his side of the family, do not think I was bratty at all, and are mystified at what my mother’s side is talking about when they continually categorize me that way.

The discrepancy between them is hardly surprising. Some parents can be very strict, and interpret normal behavior as disrespect or being spoiled. Some parents are completely blind to their child’s brattiness, telling everyone that their screaming kid in the midst of a tantrum is an angel. However, with further prying, and retelling of certain key stories, I realized that the discrepancy in my case came from a deeper cultural difference between my parents. When I tell some of these stories, some adults who never knew me as a child shake their heads, and come to the conclusion that I was a brat, and say that they would have had a hell of a time trying to raise me if I was their child. Others shrug and say that I sounded bright for my age, or laugh, while others are completely puzzled as to where the disagreement lies.

I’m going to tell you one of the stories that I remember most clearly in my mind, in an effort to highlight how different cultures put different weight on certain kinds of behavior, and to see how your respective cultures would react to this kind of situation.


I was in the first grade. I still remember the classroom, my first grade teacher’s name (here I’ll call her Mrs. S) and what she looked like, and I am still in touch with the other girl who features in this story (here I’ll call her Matty). We were in what passes for math class in the first grade, it was a warm and sunny day, and I could tell that Mrs. S was off her game. She was sweaty and agitated that day, and far snappier than usual. She presented the math problem to the class (I still remember what it was exactly, but that’s perhaps a little too much detail), which had a slight trick to it. I remember thinking the immediately obvious answer, spotting the trick in the question, then reevaluating my answer. Mrs. S didn’t ask me, however, she asked Matty, who fell into the trap and gave the incorrect answer. Apparently Mrs. S didn’t think it was much of a trick question, got angry and frustrated at Matty, and gave her a detention, something usually reserved for serious classroom disruption. Matty started to cry silently, and I was disgusted. No one had even been punished for getting a question wrong before. Matty was not being obtuse on purpose, or disruptive, she just didn’t spot the trick in the question in time. I was incredibly angry at Mrs. S.

Since it was the first grade, detention could not be after school. Rather, in my school, detention was during break time. Worse, kids in detention were not kept in class, but rather made to sit on a chair outside, in silence, while they watched the other children play. That day Matty was the only child given detention, so she would have had to sit there alone, so I formulated a plan.

When Matty was led outside by Mrs. S to her chair, I promptly sat at Matty’s feet, playing with the small stones that covered that part of the playground. I did not speak to Matty, because that was not allowed and I didn’t want to get her in further trouble. I wanted to show Mrs. S that she was in the wrong, and I wanted Matty to know that she didn’t do anything wrong, and that I would keep her company. I could see Mrs. S squirming. What could she do, put me in detention also? Then I would have just moved from the stony ground to a chair, a step up actually. Twice, she asked me in honeyed tones if I didn’t want to play with the other children. I replied no thank you Mrs. S, without looking at her, and kept moving the small stones around my feet in that meditative way that sibling-less children seem to master. I could tell she was starting to feel restless, and perhaps a little ashamed of herself. She was an adult, after all, and if I could spot that she had overreacted when she put Matty in detention, surely she must have realized that also. Once I peeked up at Matty’s face, and I saw her smile. She had stopped crying, and that was worth a lost recess any day. With 2 minutes left Mrs. S gave up, and let us both play until the bell. I felt vindicated.

That is the kind of thing I used to do. I challenged authority when I thought they were wrong. I was not a brat in the sense that I cried and screamed for a treat, my entire family admits this, even to the point that I would never ask for anything at all, another source of frustration for my mother. Rather, I was a brat in that I presumed that adults should explain to me why they made certain decisions for me, if I thought they were the wrong decisions to make. My father would explain things endlessly, never talking down to me, to the point in which it would sometimes be too much and embarrassing and I’d say OK Dad, enough! I get it! It’s a no! My mother, on the other hand, grew up in a culture in which “because I said so” was a good enough explanation, but that was never good enough for me. As far as I was concerned, “because I said so” actually meant “Now that you mention it I have no good explanation, but I’m not going to admit that to a mere child, nor am I going to try to think why I came to this decision in the first place, just obey me and shut up”. When I was explained the reasoning, I obeyed. When I got “because I said so”, I didn’t. I never trusted authority blindly. If that went for my parents, it certainly went for everyone else too. That got me into trouble sometimes, especially in the States.

So, my question for all of you is this: in your culture, what kinds of behaviors make a child a brat?


  1. says

    To my mind, bratty means selfish and demanding; someone who sets their personal wants above the needs of everyone else. Standing up for your friend is the complete opposite of bratty, no matter how annoyed the teacher gets.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      In this context, brattiness was about how I responded to discipline. Taking away how I interacted with other children, all parents have to make decisions about how they will shape a child’s decisions for themselves. A child who wants to eat chocolate for dinner is not putting their needs above others, but simply doesn’t have the understanding to know that it is unhealthy, and will most likely make them sick. A child who does not accept their parents refusal to feed them chocolate for dinner, and screams and cries and throws a tantrum over it, might also be considered a brat. I would probably call such a child a brat too.
      The other thing is that, at the age of 5-6, my ability to understand things, and my inner logic, far outstripped my ability to put those thoughts into words and explain myself to adults. My teacher, and my mother, might just see a child being defiant, rather than ask themselves or me why I was defying them at that moment. If my mother asked me in an agitated way, I might not be able to express myself well enough on the spot, and I might cry in frustration at her inability to understand my motivations. This would lead her to the conclusion that I was just being a brat. We have had many conversations about past events in the light of my adult mind being far better at putting things into words, and sometimes she throws up her arms and says “well why didn’t you just tell me that?!” She forgets that it took her years before she gave me the chance, and years for her to realize that I might have had motivations that were more complex than I was just disobeying for the sake of being rebellious and bratty. The rest of my American family never got to that point at all, so to them I was just a willful child and a brat.
      My father, on the other hand, never even let a misunderstanding bloom, explaining every decision he made for me to death to make sure I understood him completely. It was a completely different style of parenting, and one that is considered by many to be silly, that children should just learn to respect and obey their parents, and that there is no point in pretending that your child is an adult and reasoning with them as if they were. I think both kinds of parenting can be taken to extremes.
      Either way, thanks for seeing that story as me standing up for my friend, not everyone takes that message away from that story! 🙂

  2. kestrel says

    To me, a brat is actually created by the parents. In my mind, a brat is a child who, say, throws a tantrum at not being allowed a piece of candy, and then the parents immediately relent and give the child the candy so as to stop the child crying. The child naturally learns that all they have to do is just scream loud enough and long enough and they will always get their way. I suppose it pacifies the child for the time but they can become an absolute tyrant and then very sadly when they get into school they learn abruptly that this tactic does not always work.

    I don’t see your behavior as bratty. It seems more compassionate to me, feeling bad for another child and wanting to help her. I can see how the adults might feel frustrated by that and maybe it’s easy to label that as bratty, I just don’t see it as such.

  3. martha says

    Speaking of cultural differences, I live in Wisconsin & when I read the headline, before I noticed whose blog this was, I thought you were referring to a locally popular type of sausage (pronounced “braht”).

  4. anat says

    Similar to LykeX, I like seeing subversiveness in children, especially for the benefit of someone else who was being treated unfairly, but also in self-protection. When my child was being subversive I took it as a message to rethink my goal, what was my intent, whether I was communicating my message clearly, whether my message was justified or perhaps I was pointlessly insisting on authority when there was no need to do so.

    The question of parents promoting brattiness – for me there was a difference between situations involving only the three of us or whether other people were being affected. It is easier to insist and enforce the parent’s initial decision when others are not affected. Say, when my kid was 3-6 he often did things like refuse to walk or insist on walking backwards. When I was alone with him, I could enforce a statement such as ‘we will continue walking when you are ready’ or ‘you can walk backwards on the sidewalk, but nor when we cross streets; I will wait here until you are ready to cross the street walking forwards’. Sometimes this made a 10 minute walk take 30-40 minutes, but I had the patience. But if we were in company of others such solutions didn’t work, and I sometimes found myself giving in to bratty behavior because I couldn’t find another way that didn’t inconvenience third parties unfairly.

    My sister-in-law got the impression I was terribly spoiling my kid, but then when her kid spilled juice and I handed him the sponge to clean up his mess, just like I had been doing with my kid since early toddlerhood, my nephew stared at me uncomprehending my intent. So I guess we were roughly even in the kid-spoiling department, each in her own way.

    • says

      I know what you’re talking about. I’m very much in favour of “your behaviour has consequences” parenting instead of “I’m going to punish you” parenting, but sometimes you can’t go through with it because there’s other people around.
      “Either you get the room cleaned in time or you’ll have to clean up instead of going to the zoo” is a really good policy, but what about the other kid in the family who dutifully cleaned up and is looking forward to the zoo? And what about the terribly overworked mum who was actually looking forward to a trip to the zoo as well instead of an afternoon of fighting with her kid?

      • rq says

        Currently trying to navigate this situation. Mostly due to mum looking forward to field trips while ungrateful children insist on not cleaning the room. :/ I think they’re going to win this one.

  5. says

    Well, my verbal first grade report says “Injustices against herself or others make her go red with anger” which some other teacher might have seen as “brattyness”.
    What makes a kid a brat in my view? Being entitled, uncaring and manipulative. Thinking that rules (all rules) are made for others*.
    On the other hand I know that being non-neurotypical often looks like being a brat. Though my kid is sometimes both and believe me it’s not because I’m too indulgent or don’t insist that they clean up the mess they make themselves.

    *Which is different from questioning rules. The bratty child knows and understands why there’s a rule against eating in the classroom during lessons but decides since he (deliberate. It’s always a “he”) is currently hungry the rule should not apply to him. He also thinks that it is unfair if the teacher imposes consequences for this.

  6. smrnda says

    There’s definitely cultural and class related differences to whether kids are ‘brats’ or ‘well behaved.’ It’s sort of how, schools in the USA which cater to poor or minority kids tend to emphasize discipline and following orders and doing what they were told – schools which server richer, whiter kids are more likely to give kids flexibility and freedom and admire kids for being assertive. Poor and minority kids are evaluated as either following the rules or not or looking and a acting ‘respectable’, the richer, whiter kids are likely to be praised for their competence in subject areas. This seems to reflect the realities of class and race in the USA, and the same issues with schools get carried over into policing, treatment on the job and such.

    I find that most people I know who use the term characterize kids who are brats as ones who deliberately antagonize other children or adults. Not kids who happen to do something annoying, but kids who do things because they clearly enjoy being annoying to others. Sort of more ‘bully with an annoying smirk.’

  7. Karen Locke says

    I was an uber-non-brat by any definition, not because of innate greatness but because of depression. Being ‘wrong’ (and getting chewed out for, or worse, having it exposed to other people) was extremely painful for me. So I was the epitome of the good, quiet, compliant child. That’s not to say that I didn’t slip occasionally, but my very authoritarian mother was proud to say she never had to spank me. I had no way to communicate how bad I generally felt or how much being yelled at hurt. But it cost us both; I grew up not being able to respect her much. As an adult, I realized that part of the problem was that my mother suffered from chronic pain and anxiety, which made her quite cranky much of the time, and reduced her patience to almost zero. But still, the tension between us was never fully resolved.

    My father was the exact opposite. He rarely told me to do or stop doing anything; instead, he asked me, and explained why it was important. He got the same compliance out of me, but it made me much more willing to put my heart into whatever it was; I grew up with an enormous amount of respect for him. He never once, as far as I can remember, raised his voice at me. After I grew up, it was very easy to renegotiate our relationship as equals, and he remained my best friend and confidante until his death.

    But you brought up the point about culture, and how it affects parenting. My parents both were inclined to parent the way they themselves were raised. My maternal grandfather was fiercely authoritarian, and my maternal grandmother was quite passive-aggressive. So my mother parented using those approaches. My paternal grandparents were much more laid-back; they prided themselves on being reasonable people who never shouted. It just wasn’t done. My father followed their approach. Both my parents were the children or grandchildren of northern European immigrants, but the micro-cultures they were exposed to as children ended up having a profound effect on me.

  8. says

    I’m pretty sure I sometimes still fall into the “brat” category — or does it become “asshole” when you’re an adult?

    Regardless, kids are gonna be kids, ‘cuz they’re people in training — it’s the parents’ job to teach them Humaning 101 and Socializing 101 and to curb their more-disruptive* behavior (or leave the situation) when needed.

    ‘N it’s not ‘cuz nobody wants to see a meltdown. I’m coming at it from the other side of the equation: Nobody wants to be seen melting down. Really. Taking a few minutes in a quiet(er) area won’t kill the parent or the kid, and — from personal experience! — gives the person melting down a little time and space to get their shit together and be able to function.** I see no reason why children wouldn’t need a similar sort of “calm down and collect myself” period, the world’s an overwhelming place!
    *Please, for everyone’s safety, keep your small children out from underfoot and off of displays.
    **Or at least to hold it together until you to get to the car.

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