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?